Xenia Onatopp: Not Georgian

In the 1995 movie Goldeneye, the following exchange takes place between James Bond and the villainess Xenia Onatopp:

XO: Thank you, mister…

JB: Bond. James Bond.

XO: Xenia Sergeyevna Onatopp.

JB: Onatopp?

XO: Onatopp.

JB: Your accent…Georgian?

XO: Very good, Mr. Bond. You’ve been to Russia?

JB: Not recently. I used to drop in occasionally. Shoot in and out.

In fact, Xenia’s accent is not Georgian, but Russian (see video below). As I’ve discussed before, Georgian accents are fairly plodding, whereas Russian accents tend to be smooth and liquid. Probably the screenwriters chose to add this detail in order to avoid the Russian villain cliche while still keeping the story within the post-Soviet world. It also has the added benefit of signaling to the audience that Bond is worldly (“Wow, he can pick out an obscure accent, that’s some real secret agent stuff!”).

There is some confusion as to what Xenia’s ethnicity really is. Part of this is due to ignorance about just what the hell “Georgian” is (is it the same as Russian?), which leads a lot of people to take her to be Russian. You can find message board posts that refer to her “Russian / Georgian accent”, whatever that’s supposed to mean. Some have taken her to be a Georgian-born Russian. This isn’t implausible. After all, Tbilisi was 10-20% Russian for most of the twentieth century. But then is “Georgian accent” supposed to refer to the distinct accent of Russian as spoken by Russians in Georgia? As far as I know, there isn’t any such thing. In any case, actress Famke Janssen herself describes Xenia simply as Russian:

Actually, Xenia’s Russian accent (or rather, the accent employed by Janssen) is extremely unnatural, in the sense that it is not used by any real people. She is able to correctly produce th-sounds (both unvoiced and voiced), but at the same time her speech is riddled with palatalization (raising the middle of the tongue to the roof of the mouth). The latter is a distinctive feature of Russian (and something that is foreign to Georgian), while the former suggests a near-native level of familiarity with English. It turns out that Russians who know English that well are also able to avoid palatalizing, so there isn’t anybody who talks like that.

Really, it just sounds like Xenia’s accent is that of an American putting on a Russian accent. Normally that wouldn’t be remarkable, except that Famke Janssen is not American, but Dutch. She moved to America when she was nineteen (eleven years before Goldeneye), and began to work seriously on her accent when she decided to become an actress (skip to 2:11 in this clip):

Janssen’s English is flawless (and her French is pretty good too), so I’m sure she could have done a better job with Xenia. Why didn’t she? (And for that matter, does she use such a bizarre accent to play Olivia Godfrey on the show Hemlock Grove?) My guess is that she realized Goldeneye is kind of a dopey movie, and since nobody would be able to tell the difference with the accent anyway, she decided to focus instead on the more sensational aspects of her character.

 

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