|The Observer, March 4, 2001
A Bridget just far enough
In our exclusive sneak preview of Bridget Jones—the movie, that is—we find the nation's favourite neurotic still wallowing in good old British self-loathing. All the more impressive for being played by Texan Renee Zellweger...
by Gaby Wood
It is a truth universally acknowledged that nothing is more likely to strike fear and xenophobia into the heart of an English person than a national treasure being appropriated by an American. This can usually be avoided by ensuring that what we choose to call a national treasure is a figure so self-deprecating that Americans couldn't possibly want her. Sometimes, however, the plan goes astray. Enter Bridget Jones, the international bestseller.
It is a truth universally avoided that nowhere is our curious mix of national pride and national shame more in evidence than in our film industry. We want to take Hollywood by storm, but we don't want Hollywood to take our jobs. We want to win all the Oscars, but every new British film is met with a domestic chorus of disapproval. Could all these fraught elements of the British psyche ever come together in a single project? Enter Bridget Jones, the movie, due out next month.
The filmmakers were never in the position of simply making an adaptation of a mere book. From the very beginning, they were adapting a phenomenon. Screenwriter Richard Curtis says this actually made it easier: 'At least in Bridget Jones you kind of know what the big subject matter is. So it was convenient being able to say, "Well, have we fulfilled the brief of what made it a phenomenon?"'
It also means, however, that fans were oversensitive from the start. Ever since 1998, when Working Title, the production company responsible for Four Weddings and Notting Hill, began their search for the Bridget of the silver screen, the media have been set to pounce. And when, after a full two years, they lighted not on Kate Winslet or Helena Bonham Carter or even the Australian Cate Blanchett or the flatteringly glamorous Cameron Diaz, but on...Renee Zellweger, the British newspapers had a field day.
Zellweger is a Texan blonde, not a glamourpuss but a soft-centred, round-faced actress, best known at that time for her role as Tom Cruise's love interest in Jerry Maguire and, more recently, for her deadpan performances in the high-profile Hollywood comedies Me, Myself and Irene and Nurse Betty, for which she won a Golden Globe. Zellweger was a high school cheerleader who is said to have worked in a topless bar without taking her top off, and whose first acting job was an ad for Texan beef.
She is, it would seem, as wholesome and un-Bridget-like as they come. In the words of a former school friend, 'You couldn't find anyone more American than Renee'.
As it happens, Zellweger's mother is Norwegian and her father is Swiss. Nevertheless, as if criticism of the casting wasn't bad enough, rumours began to circulate early on about the quality of the film itself.
The script was co-written by Helen Fielding (of original novel fame), Richard Curtis (of Four Weddings and Notting Hill fame) and Andrew Davies (of BBC costume drama fame, and Pride and Prejudice in particular). The film is directed by Sharon Maguire, of no fame at all. It is Maguire's debut feature; her ostensible qualification for the job is that—apart from directing TV documentaries—she, like Curtis, is a friend of Fielding's, and is acknowledged at the front of the novel. In fact, Shazza, a character in the novel itself, is a fictionalised version of Maguire. So, to all intents and purposes, she found herself turning her life and her friends into a movie, and casting Smack The Pony's Sally Phillips as, broadly, herself.
Inevitably the rumour mill began to turn: Zellweger was so bad. Hugh Grant, her co-star, was threatening to drop out. Sets were being struck too early and had to be rebuilt. Scenes were re-written, re-cut, re-shot. Everything was way behind schedule.
Whether or not any of this was true makes hardly any difference. Because it's just a symptom of what is always hoped: it is a matter of honour in England to prepare for the bitterest shame. If 'The Making of Bridget Jones's Diary' is ever filmed, it ought to be called Pride and Prejudice. The fact is that most films are subject to such complications. The rumours may have persisted, paradoxically, because the film is such a closely guarded secret. The PR firm in question has a stranglehold on it, and is letting few people see even an early or a shortened version. Sharon Maguire can be reached but not interviewed: she has been placed under a gagging order. The soundtrack, which features songs re-recorded by Geri Halliwell and Robbie Williams, is still being worked on.
But a few intrepid adventurers, including The Observer, have succeeded in sneaking a preview. A leaked memo shows that the film has tested well in...Reading. And now we can exclusively reveal that Bridget Jones's Diary is not a total embarrassment!
Zellweger has mastered the nasal sing-song of a self-defeating Sloane. Some may not have imagined Bridget to be quite this posh, and those who found Gwyneth Paltrow's accent in Emma, Sliding Doors or Shakespeare in Love jarring may think this one (trained by the same dialogue coach) unbearable. But, particularly in the voice-over, it does enhance the story's Jane Austen overtones, and Zellweger has impeccable comic timing. Her appalling speech as publicist to the inauspiciously titled book 'Kafka's Motorbike', and her stumbling reprise in front of Mark Darcy's family, will elicit a heartfelt cringe from the most stony-faced observers. Hugh Grant, her boss and 'fuckwit' lover Daniel Cleaver, plays a version of himself in which the familiar charm turns out to be entirely phoney. And in a twist of self-referential genius, Colin Firth plays Darcy, as an updated version of what we have come to see as himself—a Jane Austen hero, scripted once again by Andrew Davies.
The film has been spoken of as part of a trilogy, with Four Weddings and Notting Hill as its predecessors. All three have been scripted at least in part by Richard Curtis, they share the same producers, they all star Hugh Grant, and all of them feature an American as their female lead. It is certainly a tribute to Sharon Maguire that the set of three appears so seamless—you would never know that this film was made by a first-time director. But, despite their obvious similarities, Bridget Jones is if anything an inversion of the others: the American actress, more of a focal point this time than Hugh Grant, has adopted an English accent; rather than being an exotic import, she is meant to be an unremitting home-grown loser; and Grant turns out to be a bastard—an effect which works precisely because we are used to thinking of him as the harmless hero.
Nick James, editor of Sight and Sound, was impressed: 'It was much more interesting than I thought it was going to be, because no other country in the world would make a film about a woman who hates herself for being womanly in this way. I think the Helen Fielding/Richard Curtis crowd have changed self-deprecation into self-hatred. It used to be that the English gent abroad would always be self-deprecating, but there is a qualitative difference between that and self-hatred.'
A turning point comes in the film when Bridget confronts Mark Darcy with the words: 'You seem to go out of your way to make me feel like a complete idiot every time I see you. And you really needn't bother. Because I already feel like an idiot most of the time anyway.' At another point she is jilted, with perfect irony, by Daniel Cleaver, when he explains his attraction to another woman: 'Lara...being American...well, it's something to do with confidence.'
In fact, one of the central problems the filmmakers must have faced was how to portray self-loathing on screen. We are familiar with the Bridget Jones drill in print, but how do you deal with having to make her concrete? Is she really fat, for example, or does she just think of herself as fat? If she is not fat (as seems clear from the body weights given with each diary entry), then how can the way she feels about her body, an intangible self-doubt, be put across?
Richard Curtis thinks that portraying a state of mind is 'the most interesting thing about adapting a book. It surprised us how much we had to portray her loneliness, and stuff like that. The book is her talking herself out of it, whereas in the film we found we had to show it at times, and that was quite interesting —it did change it, even though I hope that all the good stuff from the book is still there. I think that probably is the secret of adapting: how to stand outside a character who you've got to know from the inside.'
Renee Zellweger chose to put on weight for the part. This in itself wouldn't necessarily reflect a state of mind, but a mishap unrelated to the film turned out to prove that she had somehow morphed into her character.
While in England to rehearse her British accent before shooting started, she was subjected to a diet of omelettes, bacon, milkshakes, burgers, pizzas, Guinness, and lots of desserts. Eventually she put on a stone. Some months later, Harper's Bazaar wanted to feature Zellweger as their cover girl. They took some pictures, but when the editor saw the results she was horrified. Zellweger was pulled from the cover. The reason given was not that she was too fat, but that (in the manner of Bridget Jones) she 'looked uncomfortable' with her weight.
Emma Cochrane, editor of Empire magazine, thought Zellweger just 'looked like a normal English person'. She too was pleasantly surprised by the film. 'It's just really funny,' she says, 'This film doesn't alienate the guys like the book did. In fact, I was surprised that the guys I saw it with liked it so much. But hardcore fans might not be so keen, because a lot has been cut from the book.' Cochrane has a good feeling about the film's prospects: 'It's being released in the same slot as Four Weddings and Notting Hill—the pre-blockbuster season—so they obviously have a lot of confidence in it, and there's every reason to suppose it will do well'.
Zellweger, for her part, doesn't seem to have totally relinquished her Jones-like habits. When Hugh Grant got up on stage a few weeks ago to present her with a Golden Globe, the actress almost missed the occasion because she was in the ladies, trying to get some lipstick off her teeth.
Bridget Jones's Diary opens
on 13 April
"And now back to the studio"