Show us a man or woman who doesn’t love Colin Firth and we’ll show you a misanthrope. Blighty’s finest is once again gathering in heaps of critical praise for his turn in this week’s The King’s Speech, so we’ve taken a moment to sum up – for the benefit of Americans and other aliens, in particular – how he got this far. NB: contains pictures of Firth as Mr Darcy. May cause uncontrollable sighing.
He’d already worked with Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh, but it wasn’t until the BBC’s 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice that Colin Firth went from bit-part player to household name. His buttoned-up Mr Darcy remains the definitive take on the character for most of the world (sorry, Matthew Mcfadyen; we liked yours too but it’s not the same). The moment where he and his big flouncy shirt go swimming has entered the collective consciousness: it was the same sort of arguably-gratuitous “Hubba” moment that straight men may have experienced when Megan Fox opened the car bonnet in Transformers, or when Marilyn Monroe stood on the subway grating in The Seven Year Itch. In other words, it didn’t hurt in getting Firth firmly established in at least half the nation’s affections.
The title character of Bridget Jones’ Diary was one of those smitten by Firth’s Mr Darcy, with the result that the sequel saw Helen Fielding’s hapless journalist conduct a hilariously inept interview with the actor, Jones breathlessly quizzing him on wet shirts while Firth tried hard to be professional and gracious. While that scene sadly went the way of the dodo after Firth was cast as the Mr Darcy-esque Mark Darcy in the Bridget Jones film itself, his whole performance in both films showed a willingness to send up his own image – for example, in his pathetically non-macho fight with Hugh Grant’s caddish Daniel Cleaver. While we now know that such self-deprecation is rather typical (see also: St Trinians, where he falls for Rupert Everett’s dragged-up headmistress), it’s what began to transform him from fancied actor into national treasure.
Colin Firth has, on occasion, been in less-than-great films, and he’s shown an extreme lack of vanity in playing seriously unattractive characters, but he’s never been bad. He’s been a cuckold (The English Patient), a pompous ass (What A Girl Wants, Shakespeare in Love), a Wildean buffoon (The Importance of Being Earnest), a drunk (Easy Virtue), a lech (Dorian Gray), a football fanatic (Fever Pitch) and a harried father (er, Nanny McPhee). Considering he could have, we suspect, done a Hugh Grant and stuck to leading man parts, that’s a pretty big stretch. He’s ensured that he’s one of those dependable actors who comes out of every film with reputation intact, often polishing a less-than-gleaming product with his mere presence. And while he may still be associated in our minds with quality period dramas, a look at his CV suggests that he has a larger range than he’s often credited with.
Firth’s performance in A Single Man last year took him to another level. Managing to communicate more with a blink than some actors manage in entire films, his bereaved professor George bagged him a (deserved) BAFTA for Best Actor and an Oscar nomination to boot. With his impeccably cut suits (well, it was directed by designer Tom Ford) and architecturally significant home, George appears to be perfectly composed, but in this minutely detailed study of his daily routine, the cracks are all-too apparent and his emotional devastation evident. A masterclass in understatement, and a reminder that Firth is better than most of his contemporaries.
If Firth is trying to build from Oscar nomination to Oscar win, he may be on to something with The King’s Speech, one of the most praised films of the autumn’s festival season and an early Oscar frontrunner. Firth plays the future George VI who, afflicted with a stammer since childhood, has endured years of treatments in an attempt to correct his speech – until he meets unconventional therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush). As the prince, Firth alternates haughty disdain to his social inferiors with a desperate desire to be cured, all the while keeping his character thoroughly understandable and human; no small feat for a member of the British monarchy. The result is like a sports movie, but this time you’re cheering on a toff who’s just trying to get a word in. Ironically, Firth’s strongest likely competition for the Best Actor Oscar this year is the same actor who denied him last time: Jeff Bridges (this time for True Grit). Still, let’s hope he’s second time lucky.