Art & Soul
British screen legend
and Pride & Prejudice heartthrob Colin Firth
finds himself in period trappings once again in Girl With A Pearl
Gaynor Flynn spoke with the actor at The Toronto Film Festival.
Firth is considered the archetypal romantic hero. Although he's been
on screen for the last 20 years, it was his 1995 performance as the
and misunderstood Mr. Darcy in the BBC's adaptation of Jane Austen's
& Prejudice that cemented that reputation. And for those of you who
have missed the hoo ha, it is a formidable reputation. One scene in
that has Mr. Darcy emerging from a lake, in his undergarments, dripping
and suffering all the tortures of unrequited love, was voted the second
greatest television moment of the 20th century, just behind the moon
and slightly ahead of Nelson Mandela's release from prison…
Firth at first found the “Darcy phenomenon” intriguing, then slightly
and while he tried to leave Mr. Darcy far behind, the rest of the world
not let go. Of course, typecasting is something most of the screen
have to endure at some time in their career, so when Firth was offered
in Bridget Jones’s Diary as Mr. Darcy (a character inspired by “that”
Darcy) he accepted it, and decided that if you can't beat them, join
reached a place where he could finally see the amusing side of it all.
he does throw in that he finds it “utterly astonishing that people
mention it after all these years.”
But overall, Firth’s trying to be a little more philosophical about the
that changed his life. “It completely changed everything,” he smiles.
my career…it couldn't have been more different. And I'm obviously
the opportunities I now enjoy today that are a direct result of that
This perhaps explains why Firth has taken on Girl With A Pearl Earring,
period film: he's obviously a sentimental kind of guy. “I rather like
britches,” he jokes. “No, I enjoy period films, and I enjoy the whole
of immersing myself in another era. I felt this film took itself
which is not a popular position in many films today.”
Here Firth takes on the role of the enigmatic 17th century Dutch master
Johannes Vermeer. Helmed by debut director Peter Webber and based on
Chevalier's novel, the film is a purely speculative take on the genesis
of Vermeer's most famous and most mysterious paintings, and posits the
possibility of an intense relationship between the painter and the
(Scarlett Johansson) who would become his model for the Girl With A
Earring painting. The whole speculative nature of the film was
appealed to the inquisitive Firth.
“There's very little known about the fellow really,” says Firth. “I had
my own pieces together and I formed various theories, but there was
nothing you can really settle on. And it actually drove me bananas at
trying to come to a conclusion and trying to pin down some fixed notion
me understand specifically what kind of man he was.”
just the kind of intellectual intrigue that Firth so enjoys. “I do
enjoy the research,” he says. “And I do question whether that's any use
whether it’s just for my satisfaction but it’s one of the perks of the
me. You can just really go off and get into it and there's a lot of
that. I didn't go to university, but I do this. I don't know what it
been like playing an artist I didn't like, but I do like Vermeer. I
and I just really got into the whole mystery of the guy.”
Obviously there are particular challenges associated with bringing a
century painter to life on the big screen, and making it cinematic.
Particularly when you have minimal dialogue, and hardly any scene
given that out of the thirty-five Vermeer paintings known about today,
were painted in the same corner of the same room.
“Not a lot happens on the surface,” agrees Firth. “The action is
minimal and so
is the dialogue. But like many actors, I love doing less dialogue.
it’s badly written or cumbersome, it’s utterly debilitating. Obviously
brilliant dialogue is a gift. But in this case it was actually very
to have less to work with. I've never worked on a film so affected by
where any slight change of emphasis completely changed the outcome of a
And Peter was very open to exploring a variety of nuances. As an actor
what you’re always looking for.”
And while it was a tough ask for a first time director—given the costumes,
the art, the historical
authenticity—Firth had no qualms
about Webber's ability to pull it off.
“In some ways,” he says, “it's misleading to call Peter a first time
because you know this man is so film literate. He's made drama, he's
behind a camera, he's shot scenes, he's cut them together—he knows more about
film than most people. I've worked with experienced directors who
half his savvy.”
Webber for his part wasn't so worried about being a first timer, as
he avoided the “beauty trap”. “The challenge was to find a way to
the characters in the film to life and make the emotions as real as
and not just have people walk out of the film and go ‘god, that was
We wanted them to have a proper emotional experience. That's why it was
important to have people like Colin Firth and Scarlett Johansson in
because they pull you in and allow you to identify with that world. I
we've all seen period films where they look fantastic but it really is
watching paint dry. And I was afraid of that. I wanted to plunge us
art of the time but I was afraid that it would just become a parade of
beautiful paintings. Without the emotional depth and resonance of the
characters, I could have made a documentary.”
To that end, while Johansson was given “scrubbing lessons” and some
coaching to play the maid Griet, Firth was taught a few of the finer
life to make his transition into Vermeer as believable as possible.
“Colin likes to do a lot of preparation,” says Webber. “We toured
museums. We went to an old fashioned paint grinding mill in Holland. We
painting expert on the set, and we gave Colin painting lessons on how
your palette, and how you hold your brush, just so we could get those
right. We had an etiquette consultant who told us some of the ways
behave and how they'd hold their bodies during that period. And he
really did a
lot of reading. I used to play this game with him when we were having
lunch— we'd get the Vermeer
book and open it up and I'd point to a painting and he
would tell you which gallery it came from. He'd go ‘oh, that's in
Firth, ever humble in his accomplishments, does admit that he “dabbles”
variety of artistic past times. He writes and paints, although he also
points out that we should not expect an art exhibition any time soon.
“I actually went for an attempt at painting Vermeer’s Girl With A Pearl
but it was appalling,” he says. “So I soon realised that it was
try and paint like Vermeer. They brought in an artist to supervise me.
reproduces masterpieces brilliantly and she took me through the process
it would have taken to create these paintings. We literally went
step that he presumably would have gone through. And seeing what a mess
making of it made me realise all the more what extraordinary precision
vision he would have had to have had."
So exactly how would Firth describe his particular artistic style?
crap school of painting,” he says.