HBO and Sky’s five-episode series, “Chernobyl”, has been a grim treat. Painting the 1980s catastrophe as a fictionalised real-life horror series, both putting a spotlight on the victims but in an accessible and perversely watchable eye line, and in turn bringing a whole new sense of how we use the term “EVENT” to describe a television show.
It’s a show that doesn’t skimp on the darkness; showing us in its first scene a suicide – only to lead on to hospitals packed to the brim with burned people, mothers, children – mutilated firefighters, and scientists gasping for air inside oxygen tanks.
Chernobyl is filmed with a Hollywood standard budget making the nightmarish reality pop amongst the drab greys of the buildings. It burns with (vodka) shots that linger on their subjects, at times staying so long that it is almost painfully so. Needless to say, it is rightly grim throughout with an onscreen body-count quite rightly matching the real-life terror.
Finding Its Voice
But I couldn’t help but be distracted by one aspect of it: the accents.
I’ve seen this complaint crop up online a few times now since the show aired, and although the acting is some of the best we’ve possibly ever seen on-screen I can’t help but be distracted by this US/UK production filling its programme with homegrown talent posing as Russian soldiers, workmen, or simple bystanders.
Although this isn’t a major problem or even a slight on the show (and yes, this series is superb and if you haven’t seen it all yet go and watch it), but rather the casting and vocal choices by certain actors comes off as inconsistent – please see: our central character “Valery Legasov”; played by English actor Jared Harris. Former Eastenders alumni, Alex Ferns, took on the seminal role as Head Miner… with his Scottish accent – while Michael Socha (Derby), appropriately of This Is England fame, also shows.
Finally, nothing took me more out of the moment than Leeds native Ralph Ineson, so perfect with his gruff no-nonsense twang in 2015’s terrifying “The Witch”, here playing a Russian army officer titled “General Tarakanov”. From the get-go of seeing Ineson on screen, his very first response – it’s all you need to question why this was a decision to keep the actors’ natural accents.
The show’s creator, Craig Mazin, having clearly heard this come up a lot, chimes in on this via the Chernobyl Official Podcast, saying:
“The decision not to use Russian accents was a big one that we made early on. We had an initial thought that we didn’t want to do the ‘Boris and Natasha’ cliched accent because the Russian accent can turn comic very easily. At first, we thought that maybe we would have people do these sort of vaguely Eastern European accents – not really strong but noticeable.”
Honestly, I think after maybe one or two auditions we said “Ok, new rule. We’re not doing that anymore.”
“What we found very quickly is that actors will act accents. They will not act, they will act accents and we were losing everything about these people that we loved. Honestly, I think after maybe one or two auditions we said “Ok, new rule. We’re not doing that anymore.”
“For example, in Game Of Thrones, anyone from Manchester will be asked to push that a bit so they can clearly be defined as Northeners. We’d let someone be Irish or Scottish because they sounded great and their character was good.
“There’s no consciousness there. My hope is that the accent thing just fades away in seconds and you stop caring about it. Ultimately, a person’s accent is completely irrelevant to what’s going on because there are things happening that don’t even need an accent to be communicated – panic, fear, excitement, worry, sadness. They’re just emotions.”
Another very straightforward answer for this is as a Western production, English actors are the first port of call – not to mention that a through and through Russian subtitled drama is likely to be seen as being far less engaging and viewed in fewer numbers. But to this I say have a little faith, take the risk and commit: look at all the Scandi dramas that have come of late, and their success(es).
I understand the choice but to leave some actors in then, purposely doing an accent that is not their own alongside folks from deepest, darkest England comes off as wobbly decision making in terms of casting and directing if you ask me. My issue comes when some actors have, in turn, specifically chosen Eastern European accents; such as Emily Watson.
As much as I have loved this English/American hybrid of a series, the burr hasn’t “faded away”, nor have I “stopped caring” about it when it is so very much there.
Watson, another English native, plays fictional amalgamation “Ulana Khomyuk”, with a Ukranian accent. And while I don’t necessarily believe in the controversy of some actors not being able to play certain roles, it’s this creative decision that has made me long for a little coherence.
Tally up all of the English sounding characters and put them alongside Stellan Skarsgard, with his wonderful Swedish accent playing a high ranking officer (actually named “Boris”, mind you…), and there is a friction: if you will, a sort of low-level radiation that will consume the viewer the more they think about it. As much as I have loved this English/American hybrid of a series, the burr hasn’t “faded away”, nor have I “stopped caring” about it when it is so very much there.
My suspension of belief can only go so far when I’m watching characters that I could overhear as fellow passengers on the tube – referring to nuclear physicists from Moscow as “comrade”. A mere niggle, yes, certainly, but rather like Chernobyl itself this mish-mash of voices creates an uneven landscape in which I can’t help but notice while watching through this otherwise stunning piece of art.
Regardless, the Russians have said to have hated the Sky series and have vowed to make their own version of it. Which I’m sure will be nothing but honest, unbiased, and not at all one-sided whatsoever… but at the very least they should get the bloody voices right.
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Jon Holmes is a writer based in the UK. Alongside his work writing for film, he is a multi-accoladed filmmaker in his own right, and also performs. He can be followed on Youtube at Hans HS and on Twitter on @jonnyjonjon1