x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Colin Firth: too perfect for his own good

The actor who came to fame as the hero of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice might finally escape the shadow of Darcy with his new role as King George VI in The King's Speech, which opens the DIFF.

 
 

"It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife."

Well, that's one point of view. The alternative perspective to Jane Austen's much quoted opening sentence of Pride and Prejudice is that a single woman of whatever fortune must be in want of a husband, as long as he is Colin Firth.

Or Mr Darcy. The two are really the same thing, and have been in the female mind since the British actor emerged dripping wet from a lake in the 1995 BBC adaptation of Austen's original chick lit novel and captured the heart not just of Elizabeth Bennet, but every other woman who witnessed his damp pectorals. There was more confusion with the big screen adaptation of Bridget Jones's Diary, itself taking the plot of Pride and Prejudice, and the casting of Firth as the love interest, "Mark Darcy".

The boundaries between fiction and fiction finally collapsed in the second novel, Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason, when the eponymous heroine, a TV journalist, is sent to interview Firth and dissolves into a soggy mass of confused oestrogen in the presence of the real-life Fitzwilliam Darcy (the scene was sensibly dropped from the screen adaption).

Firth himself has become increasingly testy - indeed almost Darcyesque - about the whole business, grumpily snapping at an interviewer last year that the "word Darcy is like a phantom that won't leave me alone, like a school nickname that sticks with you for years afterwards."

For good measure, he added: "I'm not remotely interested in Pride and Prejudice in any way and haven't watched it since doing it."

Could redemption, though, finally be at hand? Playing a gay lecturer in last year's A Single Man won him the Oscar nomination for Best Actor but failed to convince anyone with a spare X chromosome.

Now, though comes The King's Speech, which opens the Dubai International Film Festival next weekend and which he is expected to attend. There is Oscar buzz about Firth's performance as George VI, King of Great Britain, attempting to overcome a crippling stutter after unexpectedly becoming king when his brother, Edward VIII (later Duke of Windsor) abdicates in 1936.

What really seems to irritate Firth though, is that Pride and Prejudice is generally accepted as his Year Zero. "I was hailed as a new arrival even though I'd arrived ten years earlier," he complained recently.

In fact it was 1984 and 11 years before Mr Darcy when he starred alongside Rupert Everett in the film version of Another Country, the fictionalised account of the spy Guy Burgess's traumatic experiences at a British boarding school.

Firth had already made the part his own in the West End stage version a year earlier. At the time, he was just 23 and had recently completed drama school in London.

The son of teachers and the grandson of missionaries, he was born in Grayshott, Hampshire in 1960 but moved almost at once to Nigeria where his father had accepted a job as a history lecturer. Returning to the United Kingdom several years later he found it difficult to fit in, not least at school, where he was derided for his "posh" accent.

By his own account, Firth's teenage years were ones of rebellion, although perhaps not in the accepted fashion. In an interview with The Times of London in 2007 he explained that "I didn't smash windows or get into fights" but instead "grew my hair long" and "took refuge" in Camus and Dostoevsky.

There was some mild drug-taking (but not anywhere near his parents') and finally a refusal to sit the A level exams that would have taken him to university. In the end he dragged himself out of bed and took a job at a theatre switchboard "staring into the abyss" with a volume of Kafka for diversion from the daily grind.

It was here that a casting director helped Firth into drama school and later pushed him to the front in the casting for Another Country. The sudden fame, he says "blew me away" although he struggled to get on with his co-star Rupert Everett who is said to have found Firth "bourgeois" (the two have since made up).

Some superior TV drama followed, including Lost Empires by J B Priestley and, in 1989, Valmont, based on Les Liaisons Dangereuses and directed by Milos Forman.

The cast included Meg Tilly, the American actress best known for her role in The Big Chill, but who has since left show business. The two formed a relationship, living for a time in her log cabin near Vancouver, where Firth turned his hand to making furniture. Tilly eventually gave birth to their son, Will, in 1991 but the couple broke up two years later, with Firth finding it impossible to balance the demands of family life and his acting career.

The split was amicable, of course, and Firth remains a devoted father.

He has since married Livia Giuggioli, an Italian producer and director who he met on set in 1996. The couple were wed a year later, remains devoted to each other and have two sons, Mateo and Luca .

You might think that would be enough for his legion of female fans. Firth, after all, is no George Clooney, a bachelor who remains, no matter how improbable, an attainable fantasy.

Perhaps it is simply because Firth is too good to be true that so many women find him desirable (He was named Britain's most attractive man in a poll published on his 50th birthday in September). He is the ideal boyfriend/husband, whose slightly crumpled good looks bring out something even a bit maternal and who would never forget a birthday or an anniversary.

Some men would be happy to be seen like this, but Firth seems to be slightly irritated by his image. Yet he keeps playing up to it. Yes he makes serious art house dramas based on classic works most people have never read. Yes, he earnestly supports good causes like fair trade coffee and asylum seekers facing deportation to horrid countries, and last year he launched Brightwide, a project to promote social activism in film making.

And then he goes and makes Love Actually, St Trinian's II: The Legend of Fritton's Gold, Mamma Mia! and even What A Girl Wants with Amanda Bynes, where he plays a British aristocrat called Lord Dashwood.

The problem for Firth is no matter how hard he tries, he never seems able to better Darcy, either Mark or Fitzwilliam.

"Every single film since, there's been a scene where someone goes, 'Well I think you've just killed Mr Darcy' But he is a figure that won't die," he told the Times interviewer.

"I can't control him. I tried to play with it in Bridget Jones. I've never resented it - if it wasn't for him I might be languishing, but part of me thinks I should do this postmodern thing, change my name by deed poll to Mr Darcy.

"Then people can come up to me and say, 'But you are not Mr Darcy' which would be different. I dare say it will be my saving grace when the only employment available to me is opening supermarkets dressed in breeches and a wig."

Perhaps The King's Speech will do the trick. He should probably, though, avoid plunging into the sea at the Madinat Jumeirah before proceeding down the red carpet.

jlangton@thenational.ae