Is the curse of Darcy about to be lifted from Colin Firth now that he has bowed to the inevitable and agreed to a second incarnation as the unattainable sullen hero? For his sake, we must hope so. In any other circumstances, Firth would be spitting tacks to have the conversation veering towards Mr Darcy, a part that made him inordinately famous in the television adaptation of Pride and Prejudice six years ago and has plagued him ever since. But he has taken a gamble, and suddenly he is sitting back using the D-word with perfect equanimity.
Agreeing to impersonate Mark Darcy in the film of Bridget Jones's Diary could be the smartest thing he has done. Helen Fielding's fictional columnist, Bridget Jones, has a massive crush on the Firth/Mr Darcy/Mark Darcy figure. Who else would Fielding and her panting fans have wanted to see in Mark Darcy's ridiculous hand-knitted reindeer sweater but Colin Firth? And what better strategy for Firth than to join in the joke?
Firth has deliberately avoided frilly shirts and breeches since Pride and Prejudice. He has stood, a bemused and slightly appalled onlooker, above the hysteria that turned him into a heart-throb. "There's this other person called Mr Darcy who I have very little to do with," he says. "He's like a bizarre doppelganger that I've spawned who walks around doing things without me. I've not really allowed myself to get hung up about it. Life has gone on perfectly satisfactorily. It hasn't held me back. It dominates what gets written about me, but it doesn't affect me any closer than that."
He claims that he didn't worry about compounding "the Darcy thing" by playing the very character inspired by him in the Diary because he wasn't being required to reproduce the role. "There was an ironic slant on it. It was an in-joke, a reference point. I think that's acceptable."
Firth did have some worries about the film. Would it be boring? Would the script be good enough? Would the humorously cumulative effect of Fielding's prose translate into film? Had a film version anywhere to go?
"There's a great danger in striving to make a designer hit just because all the elements are right," he says judiciously. "It's not necessarily going to work because the book has been a phenomenal bestseller." (The other "elements" are Hugh Grant as the love rat and Renee Zellweger as the neurotic Jones, plus a strong supporting cast led by Jim Broadbent and Gemma Jones.)
But Firth's real dilemma was this: how could he not act his own character, having been given flattering immortality in Fielding's book? Wouldn't that just have played into the hands of all those deluded women who confuse him anyway with hard-to-get, brooding Darcy? And wouldn't he have come across as a humourless snob?
To his surprise, Firth is finding it a relief to talk about his part in Bridget Jones because at least it's current work. Usually, interviewers (exactly like Bridget Jones in The Edge of Reason) ask a few dutiful questions about his latest film but can't wait to hark back to Mr Darcy and the wet shirt. He could understand it, he says, if he were doing a long-running weekly Pride and Prejudice series and had signed a 20-year option. "But it has not been a part of my life for six years," he groans. " 'What's it like to be a heart-throb?' they ask. I don't think anyone on earth can meaningfully answer a question beginning: 'What's it like . . .' "
Though he insists that he doesn't wake up in the middle of the night fretting about it, Firth is resigned to being shackled to Darcy for ever. "I can't think of a single headline in the last five years that didn't have the D-word in it. It would be so, no matter what I did now. Probably for the rest of my life. Even if I changed my profession."
He alludes to Mr Darcy as if he were an embarrassing relative - and he has the same rather detached view of his part in the chaotic world of Bridget Jones. "I have to say it was not the most challenging hour of my life," he says drily. His enthusiasm is reserved for the brilliance of his co-stars, Grant and Zellweger, and the serious challenges of making "a very light film".
"Hugh is a brilliant light comedian. It is a very substantial craft. Because of its lightness, its substance is often overlooked."
Needless to say, Firth as Darcy is everything his fans expect him to be - dark, difficult, devastating. He glowers magnificently in the reindeer sweater. He admits his affection through clenched teeth. And, when the moment comes for him to be truly human, he strips down to his shirtsleeves and rescues Bridget's dinner party by knocking up an omelette.
Amusing as all this may have been to film, it is clear that Bridget Jones's Diary lacks a certain relevance to Firth's life: he is a professional man with no social hang-ups, no cellulite and infinite job security - plus his wife of four years, Livia, is due to give birth any day now.
He admires the phenomenon from a safe distance. "I don't feel it's about me. I don't weigh myself every day. I don't see the world divided into married and single people. I certainly don't see married people as smug. Fielding is very, very funny about those things - but I'm reading about somebody else."
Apparently, he gets the same feeling when reading about himself in articles. "It's very little to do with who I feel myself to be when I go to Sainsbury's."
Fielding first met Firth when she visited the set of Fever Pitch, where Firth played the emotionally retarded Arsenal fan in Nick Hornby's memoir of love and football. They met again over lunch in Rome when he agreed to be interviewed by her as Bridget Jones and soon lapsed into a double act of Bridget and Darcy. "She went into Bridget mode and I fell into it. It was a game, a little pantomime"—one that ended up as one of the funniest sequences in the diary's sequel, The Edge of Reason.
Firth's friendship with Hornby has continued to be productive. Last year, he came out of the literary closet by contributing to an anthology of short stories edited by Hornby, Speaking with the Angel. The book was to raise money for TreeHouse Trust, the charity that runs the school for autistic children attended by Hornby's son, Danny. Firth has been "writing and putting stuff in a drawer" for years but The Department of Nothing is his first published piece.
"Writing has not been a deadly serious secret pursuit before launching myself on the world. It's a hobby I enjoy—something I might do in Biro on an aeroplane." But he has found committing himself to print "a lot more exposing" than he imagined.
Firth treats acting and writing as a way of continuing his lacklustre education by more enjoyable means. So, when researching his next role as a prominent Nazi lawyer in Conspiracy: The Meeting at Wannsee, he continued reading Holocaust literature all through Christmas and long after the film was shot. Here, he plays the part of a man who puts the case for mass sterilisation over a buffet lunch at a Third Reich gathering in 1942.
"He talks about it as if it were a meeting to discuss foot and mouth disease," says Firth. "That's what's astonishing: these men cracking jokes, passing the cheese, looking at their watches . . . and talking about genocide. I think what is shocking is how you can get reeled in. Put yourself in that position: could you be one of the men round the table?"
Later this year, Firth will embark on another personal journey of enlightenment as he prepares to play Hamlet at the Riverside Studios, with Geraldine James as Gertrude. "I'm 40 now. I would say it's getting to last call for me to do Hamlet." He admits that he has often thought we should "put Shakespeare away for 10 or 20 years" and then come back to it, "but so long as there are people like me who want to have a crack at it, then it's going to be with us".
He admits that, as a schoolboy, nothing would have delighted him more than to see Shakespeare banned. "I would like to have been put in the position of being able rebelliously to discover Hamlet. Maybe if Hamlet were forbidden he would become like Eminem . . ."
And maybe, if
were to see his Hamlet ("v. eligible bachelor", after all), she would
up a bit.
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