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Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Mumford and Sons being Brave

Brave is a lovely film. If Pixar's earlier triumph Finding Nemo proved definitively that fish are people too, then Brave does the same for the Scots. And their bears.

Set in 10th century Scotchland, it's the story of a mop-headed princess, Merida, who doesn't want to wed when her parents decide it's time. "I don't want to get married," cries Billy Connolly, as her mountain of a father, imitating his daughter for the amusement of her wise mother, Elinor, played by Emma Thompson. "I want to stay single and let my hair flow in the wind as I ride through the glen firing arrows into the sunset."

Its big theme of mother-daughter relationships is wonderfully and economically thumped home when Merida accidentally has a witch turn her poor mum into a bear, in a kingdom where bears are the great enemy (one ate her father's leg). Metaphors don't come much better than that.

This is where the Disney/Pixar thing comes into its own. In no other medium would it be possible to convey exactly when the bear contains the spirit of Merida's mother and when her spirit is departing, leaving only a terrifying ursine husk (anyone with a mother affected by dementia may find this unbearably moving, no pun intended.) The sight of a prim grizzly bear, humiliated and fearful and yet also maternal for her human offspring is both pitiful and hilarious and therefore hard to forget.

I wanted to see it because I'd heard that Julie Fowlis had done some of the music and I wasn't disappointed. There was a lovely folky vibe that ran right through the film.

And yet at the end I found myself momentarily speechless, apart from a few expostulations, to see on the credits that Mumford & Sons were also on the soundtrack.

I like Mumford & Sons. I do. But you can just imagine how that particular conversation went in a Hollywood meeting. "Who do we know who's British and folky?" "Hey, what about those guys.... Mumfords & Son? Didn't one of them just marry Carey Mulligan? And we could get that little girl in from The Hunger Games. She's a Brit, isn't she?" Yes, she's from the New Forest.

In order to get a more celtic feel uilleann pipes were added to the usual Mumford banjo sound - and it works. I had no idea it was them until the credits rolled.

But it bothers me for the same reason that having Emma Thompson playing a Scot bothers me. I mean, what's the point of casting her in a movie in which you'll only be using her voice and then asking her to change her voice? Wasn't Gina McKee available?

I know, I know. Thompson's an actress. She's supposed to do voices. And Brits going to the huge English-speaking market that is the US are so used to having to do an American voice that it's really not an issue for them. Work is work.

Similarly, it would be unfair to blame the Mumfords for being English but adopting a Scottish accent, musically speaking, in order to appear in a Hollywood movie. You just would, wouldn't you? To refuse would be self-defeating.

Yet even the film's name references the only other movie about Scotland - Braveheart - that most Americans have heard of, thus turning the place into a kind theme park of references for cloth-eared tourists.

I guess what I'm experiencing is the habitual shirtiness of the culturally colonised. We can see the difference between being British and being Scottish - and God knows the Scots certainly can - so why can't you, Hollywood?

I guess this is what it feels like to be Scottish...

Sigh no More, indeed.

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  1. When Ewan McGregor is over here, you would hardly even know he's Scottish until he's on the Craig Ferguson show. Then the dialect gets heavy in a hurry. While it's true that the British isles can be a lot of same to people in the US, in the UK everyone thinks we're from Texas (Three Weddings an a Funeral makes me nuts!).

    I live in the Midwest, where we we are noted for our complete lack of dialect and yet, apparently we all talk funny to the EU. And, Hollywood thinks nothing of casting a California native as Johnny Cash (TG Reese Witherspoon is the real thing in Walk the Line). Maybe we should be glad they at least booked folk musicians and not Pink or Katy Perry.

  2. Emma Thompson's mum is the Scottish actress Phyllida Law, so she might have got some coaching ;-) Thompson did spend some childhood years in Scotland too. She essayed a very good Scottish accent in the excellent comedy drama series Tutti Frutti back in the '80s. I speak (OK *write*...) as a Scot who doesn't have a Scottish accent any more, but can still just about do one...


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