For years–ever since I was a child–I’ve been an avid Colin Firth fan, and over time, my fascination has evolved into an academic investment of sorts,
from the occasional graduate student seminar paper addressing his work in literary adaptation to employing it as a teaching tool in my own courses (God
bless you, Colin, for being almost single-handedly responsible for contributing to renewed student interest in Jane Austen. If literary academia hasn’t
collectively written you a letter of thanks, It’s high time we did).
In a celebratory tribute to the man on his birthday, I thought I’d share a few of my favorite Firth performances. For purposes of practicality, time, and space, I’ve limited the list to five films, mostly because any more than that would make narrowing my choices considerably more challenging. Four out of five of these films are literary adaptations because I think that this branch of film represents some of his most impressive work. The intuitiveness with which he brings literary characters to life manages to tap into the popular imagination’s image of that character while presenting an authentic interpretation of his own. So: let’s have a look!
1. A Single Man (2009):
This adaptation of the Christopher Isherwood novel of the same title features Firth as the middle-aged English professor George Falconer as he struggles to cope with life following the tragic death of his partner, Jim. After nearly two years since seeing this movie in theater, his performance still resonates with me—the way he gives every fiber of his being over to the character of George. In general, the movie strikes at the white hot center of life, snaps your head around and challenges you to stare your own mortality in the face, and Firth captures that perfectly, dissolving the boundary between actor and audience and inviting us into his personal space. At once shocking and sensitive, heart-warming and heart-wrenching, I’ve only since reluctantly forgiven the Academy for overlooking this performance because they redeemed themselves with “The King’s Speech.”
2. The King’s Speech (2010):
I’ve never missed an opportunity to wax rhapsodic about this film; Firth’s portrayal of the stammering monarch George VI is masterful; he maneuvers the mechanics of stammering with amazing authenticity and presents an intimate portrait of Bertie as a man, not a monarch. Needless to say, a very well-deserved Oscar. Kudos to the king.
3. Girl With a Pearl Earring (2003):
Yet another of Firth’s appearances in a literary film adaptation and, I think, one of his best. Here he plays Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer in an adaptation of Tracy Chevalier’s historical novel of the same title. Though his character has little screen time, he is allocated a very pervasive presence throughout the film, and Firth capitalizes on every visible moment he does have. His interpretation of Vermeer is precisely how I imagined him when reading the novel; seemingly withdrawn and enigmatic, with a quiet, mesmerizing intensity, he draws his audience into his gaze and into Vermeer’s world—a world of swirling colors and intense passion. We feel, even as he entraps us in this web of color, that we want to be held captive by his gaze, if only for a moment.
4. Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001:
This film needs no introduction; in a witty adaptation of Helen Fielding’s novel—itself a modern retelling of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Firth’s portrayal of Mark Darcy manages to pay tribute both to the Mr. Darcy of Austen’s making that remains one of popular culture’s iconic Byronic heroes and to Fielding’s contemporary recasting of Darcy while reprising his own legendary performance of Mr. Darcy in the BBC/A & E Pride and Prejudice with grace and good humor.
5. The Importance of being Earnest (2002):
I first saw this adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s play as an undergraduate in a Victorian Literature course several years ago, and it’s the Firth film I inevitably reach for when my life needs a little comic relief. Alternately witty and ridiculous, Firth’s spot-on performance of Jack Worthing is one of which I think Wilde himself would have been proud—a true tribute to one of the Victorian era’s most celebrated playwrights.
Finally: two bonus picks: Pride and Prejudice (1995):
I didn’t include this in the above list because I think—and Jane Austen andColin Firth fans alike will likely agree with me—this performance defies categorization. A staple of the Austen film phenomenon, Firth’s Mr. Darcy brings our beloved hero to life in a memorable and, I think, unmatchable performance.
Lastly, The Secret Garden (1987):
I’ve included this one purely for sentimental value; Firth appears briefly here as the adult Colin Craven in Hallmark’s television adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic children’s novel, and it was my first encounter with Firth’s work. Short-lived and little-known though this role is, I remember, as an eleven year-old girl, being mesmerized by that face. There wasn’t anything immediately remarkable about it;
so neutral in appearance, so passive in expression, but with a hint of something rippling beneath the surface like a lake stirred by a light wind. That
was what intrigued me; that carefully modulated reserve; that passion kept in check, a characteristic Colinesque trait that fans have come to love and admire over the years.
So, Happy Birthday, Colin Firth; your talent is a gift that many cherish. Thank you for serving as a constant reminder to me, as to many others, that a life without laughter is no life at all.