Wot’s ‘e goin’ on about?

Pic tests boundaries of foreign film status

TORONTO — The long-simmering debate over what constitutes a “foreign-language” pic in the eyes of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences — and, indeed, the purpose of subtitles in general — was brought to a boil at the Toronto Film Festival when Ken Loach’s Glasgow-set, heavily accented “My Name Is Joe” played with English subtitles at a Varsity theater press screening.

The award winner unspooled at Cannes sans English translation.

“Even though I live in Ireland, I found the accents hard to grasp,” said Irish Times’ Michael Dwyer, who saw the pic in Cannes. “It took a good 15 minutes until my ears tuned in to them.”

Indeed, certain English dialects are considered difficult for other English speakers to follow. Remember Bob Hoskins’ Cockney gangster in “The Long Good Friday”? Or Danny Boyle’s more recent Highlands-set “Trainspotting”? American audiences had a deuce of a time sussing out what Ewan McGregor and his mainlining mates were going on about in the early scenes.

The opposing camp argues that that’s the way it’s supposed to be. Part of the pleasure of being introduced to a film from another culture is unlocking the idiosyncrasies of that culture. The harder you’re forced to listen, the more you get out of the experience. The average American ear, the argument goes, will become attuned to U.K. slang within 20 minutes or so, provided he or she works at it.

No word yet from Loach on Alliance Releasing’s decision to treat his latest working-class hero, played by Peter Mullen, as a foreigner. Social critic Loach is not new to the debate. He has steadfastly refused to sacrifice everyday realism for the sake of viewer comfort. Fans will recall that his “Kes” (1970) and “Riff-Raff” (’91), also with Mullen, arrived here with subtitles.

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