Once upon a time, while browsing the aisles of Los Angeles’ now dearly departed Samuel French Bookshop, a candy store for actors and writers, I came across an instructional CD. He claimed to assist the aspiring Oscar winner in mastering the Australian accent, which the CD had handily broken down into roughly a dozen different “Australian” archetypes (including, I am very sorry to say to those in Aotearoa, a single “New Zealand” accent).
Having seen many try, and fail, to nail an Aussie accent on film, I gathered that it was up there with the trickiest accents an American or British actor might attempt – like 19th century Irish (RIP Tom Cruise) or whatever pan-London accent Don Cheadle was offering in Ocean’s Eleven. What, I wondered, were the cornerstones of its teachings? Learning to sing the real lyrics of Am I Ever Gonna See Your Face Again? Ordering a pie and sauce at the milk bar?
As the Victorian College of the Arts’ head of voice and movement, Leith McPherson, explains in this very entertaining video: “There is no one Australian accent.” Such is the mystery of the Australian accent to actors; despite myriad variations in our accents, dialects and idiolects (sometimes within the same city, let alone different states), Hollywood’s Australian accents often end up occupying the same uncanny valley. It may be a matter of preparation time, the dialect coach, and whether anyone on the production has, in fact, ever heard an Australian speak.
So, who nailed it and who failed dismissally? Let’s take a strained trip through ring-in Strine, from the ridiculous to the sublime.
10. Jude Law, Contagion (2011)
Jude Law’s accent as nefarious “Truth Serum” blogger Alan Krumwiede was so baffling it took years for me to realize, despite having watched Contagion roughly 45 times, that he was meant to be Australian. One critic, Luke Holland, described it as an accent “the likes of which is generally reserved for inter-country Ashes mockery”. I’d describe it as worthy of official trade sanctions against the US and UK.
9. Robert Kazinsky and Max Martini, Pacific Rim (2013)
In this rock ’em sock ’em sci fi fantasy, Kazinsky (from Sussex, England) and Martini (New York, New York) pilot a massive robot Jaeger, the “evocatively” named Striker Eureka. Though both are allegedly from Sydney, their accents fall somewhere between Dick Van Dyke and a native New Yorker. It’s enough to make you want to see a giant alien monster take out the Opera House. And just while we’re on it, why is their team mascot a British bulldog? Ever heard of Red Dog? Or for that matter, where Australia is?!
8. Robert Downey Jr, Natural Born Killers (1994)
There’s a lot going on here, and most of it suggests that Downey spent his prep time for Oliver Stone’s cOnTrOvErSiAL thriller tossing back double shot espressos and watching that one episode of The Simpsons. (Which, for the record, will not be appearing in this Sorted list, thanks largely to the number of times I have been forced to smile and nod while having it quoted at me.) Downey went back for a second serving in Tropic Thunder, the favorite film of “you can’t say anything these days!!” people in comments sections.
7. Quentin Tarantino, Django Unchained (2012)
We all know Tarantino loves Ozsploitation, so it was perhaps unsurprising that he’d eventually include Australian characters in one of his films – we just didn’t expect him to play one of them. Despite having marinated in Australian cinema for years, the director ends up sounding as though he’s quoting Richard Roxburgh’s “South African” Hugo Stamp in Mission: Impossible 2. Oh well, at least he gets his comeuppance.
6. Elisabeth Moss, Top of the Lake (2013)
OK, look, I know that Detective Robin Griffin was meant to have been born in Aotearoa New Zealand then moved to Sydney at a young age, but if there was any sense that Moss was consciously “doing” a Sam Neill or Russell Crowe here, it would have been fine. Instead, Griffin’s accent exists in a spooky netherworld between Australian and American. I guess it adds to the overall unsettling vibe of the series? Bad news: things didn’t improve in the 2017 sequel, Top of the Lake: China Girl, but at least Moss’s accent was overpowered by Nicole Kidman’s wig and fake teeth.
5. Liev Schreiber, Mental (2012)
Wow, 2012-13 sure was a banner era for fake Aussie accents, huh? PJ Hogan’s tender if, uh, broad family comedy of mental illness features Toni Collette doing an accent so Strine that Schreiber’s, as shark expert Trevor, doesn’t seem so bad by comparison. He was still in a relationship with Our Naomi Watts at the time, so it’s possible that some of his accent was influenced by exposure to “Aussies who got out”.
4. Benedict Cumberbatch, The Fifth Estate (2013)
Playing the WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange, Benadryl Cucumberbundt’s accent and idiolect are pretty good! (His lace-front wig, on the other hand, is the boot of all boots.) He has some of Assange’s vocal fry and vowel sounds down – listen to him say “one moral man, one whistleblower” – and for the most part doesn’t appear to be constantly thinking about the accent. For his part, Assange described the experience of listening to the performance as “grating”, though he appreciated the actor’s refusal to play Assange as (per director Bill Condon’s suggestion) a “sociopathic megalomaniac”. Did anyone actually see this movie?
3. Kate Winslet, Holy Smoke! (1999)
La Winslet’s first crack at an Australian accent came in Jane Campion’s high satire of religion and sex. Playing Ruth, who has been strong-armed into deprogramming by her family after falling into a new age cult in India, Winslet is every bit the Sans Souci backpacker turned too-good-for-you spiritualist. In a 2000 interview with the Guardian, Winslet described Ruth as “such a fucking little cow – although she was even more vile in the script. I had to be over-the-top and yet put a lid on her and make her believable.”
2. Dev Patel, Leo (2016)
Patel’s accent as Saroo Brierley is so convincing that I left the movie theater pretty sure I had once had a conversation with him at a Fitzroy house party in 2007. Just listen to him yelling “What it’s like” and “25!” at Rooney Mara. If he occasionally slips into a London vowel sound in moments of high emotion, it’s forgivable, even logical – after all, his adoptive mum is Nicole “mid-Atlantic” Kidman.
1. Kate Winslet, The Dressmaker (2015)
Here she is, folks, the queen of Australian accents, going toe to toe with the mighty Judy Davis in full flight. Thanks in no small part to the work of dialect coach Victoria Mielewska, Winslet takes the lessons learned on the set of Holy Smoke! and spins them into a fully embodied performance as Myrtle “Tilly” Dunnage in Jocelyn Moorhouse’s alternately hysterical and heartbreaking Australian gothic classic. “I’m back, you bastards!”