Newsday, May 21, 2002, by Steve Dollar

Firth Class

In England, he's a man for all reasons

There will always be an England, and as long as there is, there also will be a Colin Firth.

He may not have the stateside profile of his sometime co-star Hugh Grant (who rivaled him for Renee Zellweger's affections in "Bridget Jones's Diary"). He may not command the hipster regard of Rupert Everett, or have roared in simian drag as Tim Roth did in "Planet of the Apes." And he hasn't registered, as has Ralph Fiennes, as the emotionally tormented romantic lead in any sweeping Hollywood epic du jour.

What Firth does, however, he does better and more specifically than any of his peers. Between his earliest roles—in crumpet-laden Merchant-Ivory fare such as "Another Country"—and more recent splashes, including an award- winning turn in the BBC adaptation of "Pride and Prejudice," Firth has become a repository for certain notions about English manhood. That's consistent, whether it's the iconic appeal of those "mutton-chop sideburns flying through the air," as the London-based Observer noted of his Mr. Darcy, or his tight-lipped portrayal of that other Darcy, wriggling loose of upper-crust decorum to chase Bridget Jones.

Mention this to Firth—who is amiable and talkative over fresh cups of coffee in a hotel suite with one of those ridiculously postcard-like vistas of Central Park—and he has to laugh. He can't pretend otherwise, even though he scarcely comes to it naturally. No sniffy blueblood, he was born in Africa and spent major chunks of his formative years roaming the globe with his peripatetic family. Strange factoid: He attended junior high school in St. Louis.

True Brit? No, true actor.

"That Mr. Darcy stuff does nothing for me whatsoever," says Firth, who is 40, and lives in London with his wife, Italian filmmaker Livia Guiggoli. "We're all English but we're not particularly focused on England as a family. And for me to come to represent to English people a kind of quintessential mythological Englishman—which really does not exist outside that mythology—is ironic. And great, because I suppose I latched onto that as an identity, because I wanted to have that to get me somewhere, at quite a young age. And I was shocked, because I didn't really expect that to be the way to go. It was a very profitable thing."

And continues to be so, as Firth takes the lead role in a bubbly screen version of Oscar Wilde's aristocratic farce, "The Importance of Being Earnest" (which opens tomorrow in Manhattan, adds more theaters on Friday and rolls out wider on May 31). There's a twist, though. Firth, perhaps given a boost by "Bridget Jones," has begun to indulge his funnybone.

"What's interesting about Colin now is he has a new kind of confidence," says "Earnest" producer Barnaby Thompson. "Early on he was stuck in straight roles. But he has a twinkle—a very sly comic timing that comes out of a truthful manner. The obvious actor to compare him with is Grant, who is very funny but much more flip. With Colin you find it comes more from the soul."

That element lends some crucial underlying gravity to "Earnest," whose ensemble cast—Dame Judi Dench, Reese Witherspoon, Rupert Everett, Tom Wilkinson and Frances O'Connor—seems psychically attuned to a perfect comic pitch. But one that is deceptively delicate.

"How would you sell this?" Firth asks, revealing part of what, besides working with director Oliver Parker, aroused his interest. "You can't really. This guy lives in the country, and he's got this girl—not his daughter—who he kind of looks after, and he goes to town and changes his name when he's in town and meets this other guy, his friend in town who does the same thing. He wants to marry the daughter of a woman who is this dragon. You can't tell it. It doesn't have that kind of plot where you can sell it in a nutshell.

"The texture of it, this is inviolate," Firth continues. "You can interpret it to death, it's a very substantial play. But it's all very elusive, and all in the playing of it and all in the language. If those moments don't work scene by scene, the whole thing is going to collapse."

Despite his evident pleasure in partaking of the sporting verbal frolic that is "Earnest," which Firth claims was laugh-from-the-gut funny enough to impress even his 19-year-old brother-in-law, the actor continually hankers for a drama. In fact, he uses words such as "hankering" to emphasize his desire in this department. Until one comes along, however, he's enjoying family life.

Yet, as suits a fellow who's made a career implying all manner of complexities jostling behind a crisp veneer, life is not as simple as mere enjoyment. "I'm as close as you can get to a bourgeois life," he concedes, passing on a second coffee refill. "I have a stable marriage and a new baby and a car and a nice house. I have all that in place. I don't get to be in that house that much. And I don't get to spend all that time with that family. But I love having it all in place, and I love the fact that they can accept the life. I like the idea of that comfort, but I couldn't give into that completely. It just wouldn't happen."

Newsday Photo/Alejandra Villa
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