Discuss: Would Subtitles Help Or Hurt A Heavily-Accented Movie Like 'Attack The Block'?

There has been a minor argument going on today over the film Attack the Block, which showed at SXSW and drew raves from a great many critics and audience members. The argument is minor because relatively few people have seen the film, but it could have some impact on how you see it. Specifically, there has been talk that Attack the Block, which takes place in a South London housing project and features some pretty heavy accents, might be subtitled for US release.

The first mention of this came in THR a few days ago, which said,

...one of the movie's strengths is that it makes its characters authentic, giving them the heavy-accented and slang of the English language from inner-city London. This is giving distribution execs, many of whom like the movie, pause. There is talk of having subtitles for any North American release.

This led to quite a few discussions and articles at JoBlo, FSR and on Twitter, with an argument there well-recounted by Badass Digest. The question in each case is: should the film be subtitled, and isn't it a little weird that anyone would subtitle a film that is in English for an English-speaking audience? (Note, of course, that this has been done before with some British films, and not always for comedic effect.)

I've scanned reviews, I haven't seen any that even mentioned the actors' accents as an issue in any significant way, so I wonder to what degree this is just idle conversation. Regardless, in an interview at io9, director Joe Cornish doesn't seen to have an issue with the idea, saying,

Yeah, well whatever it takes. I would just love people to see the film. You know, deep down, I think that you guys can deal with it. I think distributors should be adventurous, and I think it's easy to underestimate the public. As long as the subtitles were switch able to switch off so the more adventurous people could just watch it as it is.

But he also makes the point that in sci-fi films — and Attack the Block is sci-fi, with the South London kids fending off aliens — unfamiliar languages are often part of the landscape. The film has some slang that will be unfamiliar to most US viewers, but Joe Cornish says that he specifically chose a small collection of words, and that they're repeated just enough that anyone actually watching the film will learn them via context by the end. (Shades of A Clockwork Orange.)

Given that the film is unlikely to ever be more than a limited theatrical release in the US, going out sans subtitles — like almost every other film — seems to be the way to go. In the long run, most people that will see the film will catch it on DVD or Blu-ray, in which case they'll be able to choose subs if so desired. But for the theatrical release, let's allow people who want to see the film see it as is. No one watching it at SXSW seemed to have any problem — in fact, it is one of the most unanimously-praised films to screen at the fest. If that audience can handle it, every other audience in the US can, too.

But what do you think — would subtitles on a film like Attack the Block be an insult, or a useful crutch? Check out the trailer below as a guide to how the film might play, and weigh in.