Mr. Darcy! The making of Colin Firth
“I thought I was managing my expectations, but on hearing the news I discovered new and unfamiliar vocal tones. Perhaps I should do another musical.” - Colin Firth, on his Oscar nomination for Best Actor for A Single Man.
Colin is the sort of name you give to your goldfish as a joke. I didn’t say that, Colin Firth did. I’ve come across some fine Colins over the years – The Damned United reminds us what a fine footballer Colin Todd was – but yeah, we know what he means: ‘Colin’ has never been cool.
Firth isn’t cool either, except in the sense of lukewarm, but he’s been comfortably ensconced as ‘the thinking woman’s sex symbol’ for coming up to 15 years now, which seems like a good deal. It’s rare for an actor to be so closely identified with a single role – especially when that role was a one-off TV miniseries – and indeed one particular scene… If Mr Darcy hadn’t taken the plunge that day who knows where Firth would be.
He did play Darcy again of course, ‘Mark Darcy’, in the two Bridget Jones films, just to prove that he can be as devastating in a Christmas sweater as a wet linen shirt, with a little imagination.
Firth – who will turn 50 in September – has been on the cusp of stardom for much longer than 15 years. A decade before Pride And Prejudice he was winning plaudits on stage for Another Country – he played Guy Bennett, the role played by Rupert Everett in the subsequent film version. Firth switched to the role of Tommy, and both were tipped for big things.
When I first interviewed him for Time Out magazine in 1989 it seemed like Hollywood was a dead cert: he was promoting a strange, claustrophobic thriller, Apartment Zero, but his big break was already in the can: a sexy, charismatic lead in a big budget movie directed by a multiple Oscar-winning director…
But it didn’t happen. Regardless of its quality, the participation of Annette Bening, Meg Tilly and Milos Forman (One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest; Amadeus) Valmont was considered a Dangerous Liaison too many, the film’s release in the UK was put back to the point where it went straight to video, and Firth went back to what he’d been doing before: television.
In person, Firth was modest, intelligent, and tracked me down a few days after the interview to request that I omit a remark he made about a certain co-star. It was hardly character assassination but it was the juiciest quote in the interview. Still, I honoured his wishes and that was nearly the end of the story. A few weeks later advertisements for Apartment Zero appeared in the press with a couple of choice adjectives ascribed to Time Out – a bit rich as the epithets actually came from Firth’s quotes in my article. Which only goes to show that not only is Colin Firth a better actor than I am, he’s a better copywriter too.
Playing the cuckold in The English Patient (1995) probably wasn’t the most smartest career move after Pride and Prejudice established his romantic bone fides, but he’s found a nice niche in the bosom of the British film industry, alternating modern romantic comedies like Fever Pitch, Bridget Jones’s Diary and Love Actually with period fare like Girl With A Pearl Earring, The Importance Of Being Earnest and Easy Virtue.
It’s not the most exciting filmography in the world – has he ever even held a gun in his hand? There’s nothing to compare with Strange Days or The Constant Gardener or Spider, for example, but Ralph Fiennes bagged those roles after his Oscar-nomination for Schindler’s List. Academy exposure could do wonders for Firth’s career too, if he’s motivated to pursue that American dream. (When it comes to that the grosses for Mamma Mia! can’t hurt either.)
Not that he stands much chance of getting between sentimental favourite Jeff Bridges and the prize. But the caliber of his work in A Single Man speaks for itself. It’s an immaculate, impeccable performance, predictably dry and British and clever, but also palpably anguished.
Sometimes Firth has seemed a bit too reliable for his own good. That decent, dependable Englishman we all know. The temptation is to take him for granted. In this film he shows us the cracks beneath the façade, the hurt behind the eyes. Thinking women – and men – might just fall in love with him all over again…
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