The simplest way to handle foreign languages is to pretend they don't exist. Hollywood history is littered with films set in far-flung locations where everyone somehow speaks American-English—like Ernst Lubitsch's The Shop Around the Corner. Although this 1940 classic takes place in a Budapest retail store, the staffers sound like Midwesterners, Upper East Siders, Jewish immigrants, and street toughs. Needless to say, Lubitsch demands of his viewers a major suspension of disbelief. Yet moment-to-moment, line-by-line, location recedes behind character and story. In getting drawn into the characters' travails, you simply forget that they're supposed to be Hungarian.
Directors striving for greater realism but who can't commit to subtitles sometimes choose a middle path: They have their actors speak in accented English. InGigi, Vincent Minnelli's exuberant musical set in high society Paris, a cast of French performers speak and sing in English but with Gallic, vowel-rolling charm. Unlike in The Shop Around the Corner, where location isn't of prime importance, accented speech helps Minnelli give Gigi a sense of place, and a certain je ne sais quoi.
One of the more convenient, and oddly effective, ways of representing foreign speech is to simply have everyone talk like Mary Poppins. From classics like The Sound of Music andDoctor Zhivago to recent films likeThe Last Station, British accents double for just about any language. It may be absurd to have Leo Tolstoy talk like an Eton-bred Anglo, but we readily (or unconsciously) accept the conceit: Characters with British accents are non-American, and thus foreign. For this year's Prince of Persia, Disney wasn't about to repel children with subtitled Farsi. Instead, Jake Gyllenhall speaks the queen's English (or rather, the chimney sweep's English), supplying that helpful "long ago and far away" feeling.