When Colin Firth played Mr Darcy in the much acclaimed Andrew Davies’ BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice in 1995, he memorably emerged stripped to his flimsy shirt and breeches and sodden from the lake of Pemberley, his magnificent country seat. His unconventional behaviour surprised not only the heroine, Elizabeth Bennet, shocked by the shore and overcome with tightly suppressed emotion - buttoned up Britain also reeled. Georgian England was plunged into the 20th Century, in a departure from the traditional TV and film portrayals of mannerly Regency society. It could be argued that his wet shirt was the most eloquent part of his entire performance – but he was well cast as the English aristocrat, bound by early 19th Century upper class conventions, and thus with all emotion – and its expression – kept firmly in check.
Colin Firth appeared in three Ruth Rendell TV mysteries in the early nineties. The mistress of psychological crime drama presented him with the perfect TV role in 1994 when he played Stephen Walby, young anti-hero and murder suspect in 'Master Of The Moor'. Once again he demonstrated his flair for suggesting a lot while saying very little, in his portrayal of this introspective character.
This tightly reined, impenetrable persona continued into Firth’s future roles, though some comic relief was provided during 1999 British short film ‘Blackadder – Back and Forth’ when the eponymous and much loved TV hero, Edmund Blackadder played by Rowan Atkinson punches William Shakespeare, played by Firth, with the memorable words “That’s for every schoolboy and schoolgirl for the next 400 years!”
Firth is also famously punched in ‘Bridget Jones’s Diary’ when in a modern reworking of his role of Mr Darcy, this time as lawyer Mark Darcy, he challenges love rival Daniel Cleaver, played by Hugh Grant to a fist fight, egged on by Bridget’s friends and the staff of a nearby Greek restaurant. Whether watching both upper class actors getting a pasting was funny and enjoyable or just basic humour of the banana skin variety with possible racist undertones is subject to personal opinion, though jokes about big knickers and naff Christmas knitted sweaters gives a clue to the level of humour in the film.
Firth loosened up a bit in ‘Mamma Mia!’ the highest grossing musical film of all time. Mamma Mia! grossed $144 million in the UK (though Grease holds the US record with $188 million) - and added to just under $465 million in the rest of the world, the remarkable world record total is $609 million. Firth plays British banker Harry Bright, and though he dances, smiles and sings – a radical departure from his usual roles – it is still very safe and clichéd, though admittedly it’s all just a bit of squeaky clean fun, and who can knock Abba? Firth cited Harry Bright as one of his favourite roles when he was interviewed on CBS show ’60 Minutes’, as well as his acclaimed portrayal of King George VI in ‘The King’s Speech’.
Already awarded Bafta and Screen Actors Guild awards, Firth triumphed at the Oscars in February 2011, winning the Best Actor Oscar in this role. Playing true to form, his suppressed speech patterns reflect the repressed nature of upper class England as epitomised by the sensitive and reluctant Prince Albert, suddenly rendered King of England by the abdication of his elder brother Edward VIII, who was determined to marry American divorcee, Mrs Simpson. Firth fits this role very well – and as Helen Mirren won the Best Actress Oscar for British production ‘The Queen’ in 2008, the subject matter seemed set to be a safe bet.
Talking to BBC'S Radio 4 on the Today programme, he said "I think gravitas is hugely over-rated and I would like to do something that amuses me now. I think it's time to continue my long tradition of making a fool of myself."
Rather like John Wayne – who was always John Wayne in all he played, even when as a Roman centurion, he declared “Truly, this man was the Son of God.", at the end of ‘The Greatest Story Ever Told’ with a distinctly American drawl – Colin Firth will always be Colin Firth, a well bred Englishman, if not always sporting a starched and stiff shirt collar, then always wearing a stiff upper lip.
With or without a stutter.
Colin Firth in Pride and Prejudice - Restored Edition [DVD] US
The Best of Jane Austen [Pride & Prejudice / Sense & Sensibility / Emma / Persuasion] [DVD] UK
Eileen O'Sullivan recommends these DVDs from Amazon US and Amazon UK - she enjoyed all of the Jane Austen adaptations, including Pride and Prejudice with Colin Firth, on British TV.