Thick-haired, square-jawed, steely-eyed, Firth's Darcy thrums with alpha-male magnetism when Bridget (played by Renee Zellweger, with a plummily perfect English accent) spots him at a Christmas party. She gazes at his self- possessed mug, imagines romance, possibilities, love. She glances from his steady, kind eyes, to his strong neck, his broad shoulders, his . . .reindeer sweater?!? It's the first comic jolt in a performance that Firth molds into a slow, hilarious, oddly moving revelation. Mr. Right turns out to be Mr. Wrong, who turns out to be Mr. Not So Bad, who transmogrifies into Mr. This Can't Be Happening, who shape-shifts into . . . well, you'll see.
"The discovery we make," says Firth, "is that this pompous individual ends up having a generous and entirely sincere side. That's what warms the cockles of our hearts." For Firth (and Bridget, and us), the key word is "discovery." Darcy, Firth says, "takes himself very seriously and therefore like anyone else who takes himself very seriously, is full of comic potential."
"Colin was always looking for a surprise because that's what's exciting for him," says Sharon Maguire, who directed Firth and Zellweger (along with Hugh Grant) in "Diary," her first feature film. Firth agrees: "The greatest joy of acting is to reveal the hidden reservoirs in a character—much more than the obvious challenges of transforming yourself. The degrees of what you conceal or reveal—that's what makes the biggest call on your judgment and your ability."
What's unlikely to remain concealed after Diary is the silent strength that has earned Firth hunky-icon status in his native country. In '95, he played another Darcy, in the BBC adaptation of Pride & Prejudice. "The nation's females went into a standstill," says the British Maguire. "Every woman in England fell in love with him."
"He played that hero so well," she says. "A patriarchal fantasy figure in a way; aloof, but burning with fire." Maguire detected a similarly quiet, white-hot intensity in Firth's approach to Diary. "I didn't think those kinds of men existed in life," she says, "but Colin is it."
Since Pride & Prejudice, Firth has played a doomed husband in The English Patient and a scheming aristocrat to Gwyneth Paltrow's Viola in Shakespeare In Love, among other film roles. Those parts and a steady stage career (he will take the lead role in a London version of Hamlet this year) have brought the forty-year-old critical acclaim, but not the leading man lucre that, say, Jude Law and Ralph Fiennes command.
Not that Firth spends time worrying about that. He lives in Tuscany and London with his wife ("which is really very gutting," says Maguire), Livia Giuggioli, whom he met when she was a production assistant on the set of the BBC's 1997 miniseries Nostromo (in which he starred). He also goes to Southern California to visit his ten-year-old son, William. (Firth and William's mom, Meg Tilly, were together for five years after meeting on the set of Valmont.) Though Firth admits he's had "very little success in Hollywood," he's aware that Diary could change that—and complicate things in the process. "Brits absolutely devour American culture," he says. "Yet there's a suspicion of Hollywood—an idea that it's vulgar and that if you court it you're selling out. Endorsement from America can be double-sided."
Does he think Bridget
Jones's Diary will bring him that endorsement? "It might. I've been
at this point so many times before," he says. "But I enjoy the
They keep me alive and going and kind of interested."
And now back to the studio
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