Investigating national identity through dialogue in “The Limey”

There’s something perversely pleasing about watching your own misery in reverse.

Today, I experienced a gentle sort of schadenfreude watching “The Limey.” The film is about an Englishman named Wilson who flies to Los Angeles to avenge his daughter’s death. When you’re on a mission like that, you’re hardly the shakeable type. But I was quite amused to see Wilson interacting with his American surroundings and getting a bit of culture shock.

As intended by our professor, it was a chance to watch the alternate version of what we American students are experiencing in London. Minus the warehouse shoot-outs and money laundering, of course.


Despite the plot, don’t go into “The Limey” expecting “Taken.” There’s no gloss or flashiness. The story is told in a non-linear fashion. The camera work switches between cinematic and shaky-hand documentary.

But it was definitely a satisfying watch. At the very least, “The Limey” was a delightful surprise for an indie flick on a film class syllabus. (Having sat through David Lynch’s “Inland Empire,” I wasn’t sure how warm + fuzzy I was feeling toward indie films with non-linear storytelling. But that’s a different story for a different day.)

Our main purpose for watching “The Limey” was to explore the cityscape. The film class I’m taking is about global cinema, and our focus is honed on great cities across the world. Yes, L.A., we’re looking at you! That being said, a standout aspect of the film was the stark differences between the “limey,” the Englishman, our protagonist Wilson and his Californian counterparts.

This cultural divergence is conveyed mostly through patterns of speech. Our first taste of this is when Wilson meets Ed, a close friend of his late daughter, Jenny. Even Wilson’s confirmation this is the Ed Roel in question is underlined by Ed rejecting Wilson’s sad anglicization. “Eduardo Roel,” Ed says, placing the proper accents on his name in all the right places.

From their conversation over dinner, it’s plain to see how the two men couldn’t be more different identity-wise. Brown-skinned Ed, with a tattoo on his neck and flannel on. Wilson, in dress clothes, with that quintessential Stiff Upper Lip. They turn out to be more similar than we first think, both being incredibly street-smart.


Ed and Wilson on a stake-out

The British in Wilson really starts to seep out as the film progresses. In inquiring about his daughter, he asks about shady record producer Valentine, the “bloke she bunked up with.” He asks if Jenny tried “to catch him with another bird.” Wilson also uses Cockney rhyming slang. “China” to mean friend, because “China plate, mate.” He takes a “butcher” around, because “butcher’s hook, look.”

Wilson contrasts his surroundings in a different way, though, when confronting Valentine’s associates. Instead of your average Latinx man in L.A., Wilson comes face-to-face with good ol’ American white guys. They use words like “pal” and beat Wilson to a pulp, citing trespassing on private property as Wilson’s specific offense. They insult Wilson’s Englishness and high-five after doing so.

In a film built on teasing out stereotypes, I’ll leave you to dissect what Steven Soderbergh is saying about American nationalism as well as men’s feeling of entitlement and aggression as part + parcel of American masculinity.

Undeniably, the brightest comedic moment comes when “The Limey” has fun with the whole Brit-in-America schtick. After being detained with Jenny’s friend Elaine, Wilson marches into the narcotic agent’s office and soliloquizes about how his prison stints made him resilient.

Wilson is talking about “geezer” and feeding “bloody pigeons” and striking someone with a “wallop” and whether he “gives a toss” and how everything means “s*d all” while this poor police officer is just sitting there taking it.

Finally, when Wilson runs out of breath, the officer says coolly, “There’s one thing I don’t understand. The thing I don’t understand is every motherf*cking word you’re saying.”

Kinder, Ed asks Elaine, “You even understand half the sh*t this guy is saying?”

“No,” Elaine confesses. “But I know what he means.”

I appreciate this aspect of “The Limey” so much. By acknowledging and embracing its campiness, it becomes self-aware and not too on the nose.

Of course, I should have known something was up with the film’s dialogue when our professor mused aloud whether we would need subtitles. They decided against it and I wonder…

I’m only being half-facetious. I caught everything Wilson said.

But time for a confession of my own: for all their sex appeal (I don’t want to name my actors, but I know y’all can think of some) or even cutesy-ness (the slang itself and precious English kids!), some English accents have actually been giving me a tough time.

Almost every day, I’ll have a double round of “Come again?”‘s during some interaction with an English person. Or, flustered and ashamed, I’ll just run with what I assume I heard and embarrass myself even more.


This actually started before I got to England. One of my favorite bands in the whole wide world is The 1975.

But honestly? I don’t know what Matty Healy is saying a lot of the time. I investigate. I look up the lyrics. But even still, I’m murky on a lot of The 1975 songs because the words don’t match up phonetically into the grooves of my brain.

Going back to cinema, I was really fuzzy on “Dunkirk.” I had a better grip on des lines en français than what was going on with the Brits. Luckily for us non-British cinephiles, publications like The New Statesman and Billboard have cheekily broke “Dunkirk” down for us.

I remember a movie night this summer when we had been scrolling through Netflix, looking for a good action film. We had settled on a Bollywood one, but my friend wasn’t up for reading subtitles. The joke was on her, though, because we ended up watching “Alleycats,” which is set in London, and had to put subtitles on anyway.

Our professor reminded us of how we’ve been in England for about a month now. We should now have an ear trained for the different dialects? For what it’s worth, I think I’m still getting there. But no rush: I’ve got about three more months left to get it right.


By Caroline Colvin

Black retro-obsessed non-binary baddie ♡ pleasure & wellness advocate ♡ aesthetic archivist ♡

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