Tag Archives: Jane Austen

The Firthday Five: Viewing and Reviewing Colin at his Best

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.

D.E.A.R- Drop Everything and read: Celebrating International Literacy

While casually browsing my Twitter feed as part of my morning routine, I was reminded by a friend that yesterday, September 8th, was designated International Literacy day—a day devoted to calling attention to and promoting world literacy and literacy needs. According to Reading.org “More than 780 million of the world’s adults (nearly two-thirds of whom are women) do not know how to read or write, and between 94 and 115 million children lack access to education.” As a writing and literature teacher, I find myself reflecting as I consider that statistic on how privileged I am in my own literacy and how honored I feel to count myself among those individuals who dedicate themselves to promoting literacy.

I consider myself fortunate to have grown up in a home where, perhaps because both of my parents were and are still teachers, reading always seemed to take precedence over watching television, or even playing out of doors; always a firm believer in the simple idea that growing children need fresh air, if my mother couldn’t force me out of doors to play, she would at least encourage me to sit on the front porch with my book. When people ask me why I chose to pursue a Ph.D. in Victorian Literature, I always share with them an anecdote I’m fond of relating: One day, when I was in the sixth grade, I was kept home from school with stomach flu and sent to Grandma’s house; sick or not, Grandma’s house was paradise; she had cable. Cable meant MTV. Just before dropping me off at Grandma’s on her way to work, Mom informed me sternly that I wasn’t to sit in front of the
TV all day. (Not that I’d planned to, or anything…perish the thought. What kind of twelve year-old did my mother think I was?). What then, I wondered, was I supposed to do? For answer, Mom handed me a cassette player and a stack of tapes rubber-banded together. It was an audiobook of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. I’m still not entirely sure why or how my mother had this in her possession, but I’m almost certain that she’d been saving it for just such an emergency. Thinking their might be a quiz when she came to pick me up, I decided I’d read it, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Of course, as a visually impaired child, reading naturally held more appeal for me than watching television, playing dodge ball in the street, or riding my bike, not that I hadn’t engaged in such activities. Fond though I was of proving my ability to keep pace with my peers, one can only take so many scraped knees and broken glasses before admitting that there might be some truth to the paraphrased adage “If at first you don’t succeed, try again; then give up. There’s no point being a damn idiot about it.” Admittedly though, I hadn’t always adored reading—hardly surprising when I had to magnify words to such a ridiculously large size that I’m pretty sure Stevie Wonder could have read them from outer space. Needless to say, trying to read so slowly that I’d forgotten what the story was about before I’d gotten to the bottom of page 5 didn’t strike me as a particularly rewarding or entertaining pastime. It was bad enough that I came home from school with migraines that left me physically ill and bleary-eyed for days at a time. If I hadn’t been introduced to the wonder of braille and the magic of audiobooks, I might not have ever given it a chance.

It’s that passion for the world I learned to explore between the pages of books and the freedom to wander through that world on my own and make my own discoveries that I love sharing with my students. When we talk of my love for literature (and sometimes of their own as well, because college students sometimes read more than we instructors give them credit for even if they don’t perhaps gravitate toward the reading we assign them) a student will invariably ask me what my favorite book is. To an English teacher, asking that question is, I think, akin to asking a mother to choose her favorite child. I have so very many: the before-mentioned Jane Eyre, because it was the first “grownup” book I read; Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, because as an adolescent, I identified with the fear and social degradation of being labeled a wallflower as the only girl no boy approached at school dances; the Ramona Quimbey series, because it kept me company on so many Saturday afternoons. Some books, like the ones above, I value primarily for sentimental reasons, though having taught and written about the Brontes and Austen in my professional endeavors, I’ve come to value them equally for their scholarly worth. Others, like Khaled Hosseini’s the Kite Runner, I love because they challenge me to step outside myself and view the world from an entirely different vantage point.

so in a gesture of acknowledgement of the incalculable worth of the written word, what are your favorite books? Can you recall a particular experience that turned you on to reading? Share your thoughts—and then, go celebrate International Literacy day—as Beverly Cleary so aptly puts it in Ramona Quimbey Age 8, drop everything and read!

Just Another Love Story: Susan Mallery’s The Best of Friends

Warm, comforting, and sweet–a mug of hot chocolate on a blustery fall afternoon. That was what I expected when I picked up Susan Mallery’s novel The Best of Friends; that was what I
got. If you enjoy light, easy-on-the-brain romance fiction, you won’t be disappointed.

Synopsis: Jane Scott has been a surrogate member of her friend Rebecca Worden’s family since she was seventeen, when she lost her mother to breast-cancer.
The product of a single parent home, Jane is treated as part daughter, part unpaid servant by the rich Wordens, who own a very successful jewelry store
in Beverly Hills. After walking out on her family ten years ago, Rebecca Worden is back, principly to make trouble for her haughty, overbearing mother
Elizabeth. When her older brother David returns home as well to take his place at the head of the family business and, as Elizabeth insists, to settle
down with a wife, the Wordens are forced to confront their past–a past that threatens to destroy them–and Jane is caught in the midst of it, not to mention
being entangled in David’s arms (and his bedsheets). Throw in a mysterious blue diamond, an opportunistic mother intent on selecting her son’s bride from
Beverly Hills’s best (a shortlist that does not of course include Jane), and the uncovering of some very explosive family secrets, and you’ve got one hell
of a bombshow.

Susan Mallery’s plot is predictable; we know precisely where and
with whom the characters will wind up, but like the Jane Austen novels from which Mallery draws upon so heavily, the magic of this romantic story is not
the thrill of finding out what happens in the end, but how the characters get there.
I liked the way that Mallery laid emphasis on David as the prize plumb; we’re all aware–at least if we’ve read Pride and Prejudice–that “it is a truth
universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife,” but all to often we forget that these young men,
semeingly on the hunt for rich heiresses, are frequently the pawns in the match-making games of many an ambitious mother. Mallery drives this idea home
(like an icepick to the brain) through Elizabeth’s character. an interesting combination of Mrs. Bennet’s irritating, nosy interference and Lady Catherine
De Burgh’s haughty, overinflated opinion of self-worth, Elizabeth Worden might not be charming, but she’s fully alive to the fact that, whether 19th century
England or 21st Century Beverly Hills, the mother pulls the strings from which her son must dangle precariously on the marriage market.

If we’re going to read this as a contemporary retelling of Pride and Prejudice, that’s probably Mallery’s strongest selling point; aside from that, between
the frequent mentions of Austen, the teasing jab at (to quote Rebecca) the “long version of Pride and Prejudice…the Colin Firth version,” and the Lifetime movie comparisons,
I felt like I was being beaten over the head with cliches, though admittedly, I should have expected nothing less and only have myself to blame for not
wearing my chick-lit armor. I don’t know whether Mallery was intending to convince her readers that her novel isn’t just another retelling of Jane Austen
or if she was trying to carve a creative niche for herself within that sub-genre; if the former, methinks the lady doth protest too much. If the latter,
the novel doesn’t strike me as any better or worse than similar stories. Fans of Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones novels might appreciate the sexual tension
(not to mention the wink and nudge in the direction of the “long version” of Pride and Prejudice that inspired the creation of Mark Darcy, but they’ll
miss the tongue-in-cheek
British humor and colorful pros that make
Fielding’s novels the perfect blend of hilarious and heartwarming.

About the characters: I found them to be simply-rendered, but convincing. We have no problem cheering for Jane as she transforms from a shy, unassuming
girl into a strong, self-assertive woman; we fall, with very little pushing, into David’s open arms; we’re alternately irritated with and sorry for Rebecca–I’ve-got-everything
glamor girl on the outside, insecure child on the inside; we feel a savage pleasure as we witness Elizabeth’s downfall.

Altogether not one of my personal favorites, but like that cup of hot chocolate, it hits the spot if you’re in the mood for something warm and fluffy.

The King’s Speech: De-Colinizing Mr. Darcy

For a little less than a year, I’ve been following a Jane Austen e-mail list run by McGill University. Not surprisingly, several posts have recently appeared commenting upon the on-screen Pride and Prejudice reunion in the Oscar-nominated film “The King’s Speech”–namely the brief exchange between Colin Firth (Bertie/King George VI) and Jennifer Ehle (the wife of speech therapist Lionel Logue, played by Geoffrey Rush). Firth and Ehle were famously paired as Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet in the BBC/A and E adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice in 1995, and their off-screen romantic liaison has been commented upon exhaustively and, perhaps, rather whistfully, by Austenites and Firth fans alike. As both an Austenite and Colin Firth fan, I admit to indulging in a moment of fangirlish, stomach-swooping delight at seeing them reconnecting on-screen, if only briefly.

The general consensus seems to be that Firth has at last given up the ghost of Mr. Darcy that has haunted him for the past decade and a half. While we cannot deny the career Debt Mr. Firth owes Mr. Darcy, nor should we cease to acknowledge Firth’s contribution to the Jane Austen film phenomenon, this characterization casts the rest of his career in shadow. there seems to have developed an irritating trend on the part of certain Austenites to claim Firth’s achievement at finally transcending the Darcy tag and then immediately proceed to compare the meeting between the couple in each film. Several fans have even expressed an intention to watch “The King’s Speech” and “Pride and Prejudice” alongside one another to compare the encounter between Bertie and Logue’s wife to those between Mr. Darcy and Lizzie; presumably one would turn to the (in)famous wet shirt scene. While an interesting exercise in analyzing the dynamic between the actors, it seems, I would argue, merely to recast Firth (and Ehle by association) within the very shadow from under which fans claim he has at last emerged.

One fan even goes so far as to speculate whether, in his predicted Oscar acceptance speech,Firth will “give the devil his due and bring Darcy into the mix as a kind of verbal epitaph.” If he does–and I don’t believe he will–it would only perpetuate the “Darcy discourse”. I can envision the headlines on Monday: “Mr. Darcy Get’s his Due: Colin Firth scoops up his first Academy Award.” Firth has, of course, learned over the years to accept the tag with characteristic Colinesque humor, so while gesturing in Darcy’s direction would seem to be taking one step forward and two steps back, it is not entirely beyond the bounds of possibility. Still, I think it would potentially deflect attention from the role for which he (will hopefully) be receiving such a well-deserved honor.

All speculation will, of course, be at an end in just four more days; and who knows? Perhaps one final word from Firth will at last silence us on this subject forever.

P.S. the blog post to which I refer above can be found here