Though the classically trained British actor Colin Firth has been working steadily sine the 1980s when he was identified as a member of what was called the Brit Pack of rising young stars, it wasn't until 1995, when he played the iconic Jane Austen love interest, Fitzwilliam Darcy, in a TV series adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, that his star was fixed forever, not to mention his image. Anyone who has read the book will understand the situation. Mr. Darcy is a reticent, bookish man of property who is no one's idea of a dashing hero who sweeps women off their feet, but in the series' most famous scene, Darcy takes a dip and emerges from the water in a dripping wet shirt that sent female viewers' heart a'flutter forever. In typically perverse fashion, Firth disavowed the role since he had no desire to pursue the fortunes of a heartthrob.
One gets the point while also recognizing that it was beside it. Firth's seriousness couldn't really stand up to the demand he suddenly found for himself, despite his dogged efforts to avoid parts that would typecast him as such. Eventually, he gave in when he took the equally iconic role of Mark Darcy, the Austen character's namesake and romantic interest in Bridget Jones's Diary, one of the most successful movies of the last 25 years. The image was obviously inescapable, and people paid good money to see it, so Firth gave in to such fluff as Love, Actually, Hope Springs, and Then She Found Me. But it his perseverance paid off with small, stirring parts in movies like Girl with a Pearl Earring, in which he played the Dutch painter Vermeer, or the very untypical Where the Truth Lies, which called on him to participate in a bisexual orgy. Also, a lot of these movies were British and, more to the point, aimed at a British audience, meaning he didn't really gain a lot of traction in North America.
It was perhaps Firth's most frivolous film, the ABBA musical Mamma Mia!, that finally broke him in the states. Though his costars, which included Meryl Streep, Stellan Skargard, and Pierce Brosnan, confessed they had a silly ball with the stupid script and the frothy songs, Firth found the whole experience "nerve-wracking," and though he got off lightly since he was only asked to sing one song. It was also one of his few performances that turned off critics, who, even if they found the movie itself good fun, could tell Firth was not really enjoying himself.
But it made a kind of cock-eyed impression that made him an international star, but one who could afford to tackle more difficult roles, such as the homosexual college professor in Tom Ford's period piece, A Single Man, which earned Firth the best reviews he'd ever gotten in his life. It was thus a natural segue to what has turned out to be the most important film of his life, The King's Speech, in which he played the self-conscious, speech-impeded King George VI.
Though in some ways the performance was a gimmick, Firth's innate talent in working with other actors made the character feel integrated into the prewar London setting that was so lovingly recreated. And his two-way interactions with Geoffrey Rush as his speech teacher were marvels of empathy. Though the movie was something of a sentimental slog, Firth rightly earned the Oscar he won.
It's all been downhill from there, though for every flash of genius, such as Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, there was the expected bit of fluff, like the horrid remake of Gambit. (As suave as he can be on screen, he's not a natural like Cary Grant.) And while he managed to survive two Bridget Jones sequels, he didn't live through Woody Allen's wincingly precious Magic in the Moonlight.
In a sense, it all comes full circle with his two Kingsman movies, in which he plays a Savile Row appointed secret agent. The tongue-in-cheek humor and over-the-top violence set his distinguished nerd persona off starkly against our cynical world, and, in fact, he's the only element in these insufferable movies that work at all. All it really takes is to look really good in a herring-bone pattern and thick black spectacles. It'll do it every time.