It is hard to name a more quintessentially British actor than Colin Firth. Playing almost exclusively (extremely) English characters and featuring heavily in historical pieces, the actor epitomises the class and professionalism many associate with British cinema, while succumbing to none of its perceived stuffiness. Firth’s status as a mainstay of popular cinema may thus be unsurprising, but as his career has proven, he is not above romcoms, children’s films, and the odd (but notable) musical. With Kingsman: The Secret Service, he even added comic-book movies to his roster. With its sequel – Kingsman: The Golden Circle – out this month, there is no better time to examine his oeuvre.
Born in 1960 to an academic Hampshire family, Firth studied at the Drama Centre London before joining the ranks of the “Brit Pack” – the nation’s up-and-coming young male stars, mainly popular on television and stage – in the 1980s. It is therefore fitting that perhaps his most famous onscreen appearance is not in a film but in the BBC’s six-episode, 327-minute adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, released in 1995. The scene where his brooding-to-the-point-of-rude Darcy takes a swim in a lake, only to emerge with his white shirt clinging to his chest, is the stuff Regency romance dreams are made of. While Firth has never (yet) appeared in a Jane Austen feature film, he did famously give us Helen Fielding’s aloof but unbearably sexy Mark Darcy in the Bridget Jones films – at least two out of three of which are certified romcom gold.
In cinemas, Firth is unsurprisingly, almost uniformly, excellent across a vast repertoire. Period dramas (Girl with a Pearl Earring, The Railway Man), ensemble pieces (Love Actually), and intersections of the two (The Importance of Being Earnest, The King’s Speech, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) define his career. He shines – albeit sinisterly – in Shakespeare in Love and The English Patient, playing the thankless roles of cuckolded husbands in romantic Elizabethan and gritty World War II settings respectively. His sardonic Bill Haydon in Tinker Tailor provides some of the film’s most charged moments, and – in a more sympathetic turn – the understated grieving of George Falconer in A Single Man induces chills.
And yet, despite this mastery of stately and serious content, Firth is equally efficacious and captivating in more frivolous pieces. Kingsman in particular deserves notice for Firth’s ability to play with his own image of British class, relocated within a secret service heightened and sensationalised beyond 007’s wildest imaginings. With Kingsman: The Golden Circle, The Mercy, and Mary Poppins Returns – action, drama, and musical respectively – on the horizon, Firth seems poised to continue his career with the dramatic range and archetypal British sensibilities now expected from him.
As Firth has been acting prolifically for years, there are inevitably some duds mixed in with the successes. Gambit, Magic in the Moonlight, and the 2016 Berlinale competition piece Genius have not been critically or commercially successful. Still, it would be strange to have a career this long and this illustrious without the occasional failed project.
Outside of film appearances, Firth is known for his philanthropic work aiding refugees, and for commissioning (and receiving co-authorial credit on) a scientific paper exploring brain differences between those with left- and right-leaning political ideologies and affiliations. As it turns out, a person is more likely to vote Tory if their amygdala is voluminous. But this is a film website, so we’ll conclude by celebrating some of Firth’s finest cinematic moments…
Top Five Colin Firth films (in chronological order):
Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001)
While his Austen Darcy is not technically a cinematic performance, his Fielding Darcy is just as much a career highlight. Firth is compelling and awkwardly charismatic throughout the entire franchise, but the original (and his beautifully unchoreographed fistfight with Hugh Grant) deserves a special place for its bold introduction to a modern woman’s trials and triumphs – not to mention Firth’s ability to blend 21st-century sensibilities with his pre-existing “Mr Darcy” image. And let’s not forget those iconic Christmas jumpers.
The Importance of Being Earnest (2002)
This sparkling Oscar Wilde adaptation may not be one of Firth’s best-known works, but it is a delightful period romp with an excellent cast. As Jack – one of the two protagonists who uses the pseudonym “Ernest” for a romantic identity – Firth is the straight man against Rupert Everett’s naughtier Algernon, the two bouncing off each other nimbly to expertly showcase Wilde’s trademark wit and frivolity. Combined with pitch-perfect pacing and a sumptuous fin-de-siècle aesthetic, this film (and Firth’s performance in it) is a treat.
Love Actually (2003)
Love it or hate it, the Richard Curtis Christmas classic features British cinematic royalty having a grand time with soppy (if problematic and fat-shaming) shenanigans. Firth’s lovelorn lead, Jamie, is a writer who takes a long holiday in Portugal to recover from his wife’s infidelity and – surprise – finds The One. His cross-lingual romance with his Portuguese housekeeper is far less saccharine and far more genuinely adorable – at times awkwardly so – on screen than it is in any write-up.
A Single Man (2009)
While perhaps robbed at the 2010 Oscars, Firth’s tour-de-force performance in Tom Ford’s directorial debut is mesmerising. He holds the audience’s focus entirely for the 101-minute run-time as he – a professor named George Falconer, struggling with the sudden death of his longtime partner – puts his life together in preparation for its end. Speaking less than he is spoken to and never giving in to melodrama, Firth proves a master of his craft. A Single Man is not the easiest watch on this list, but it is one of the most rewarding.
The King’s Speech (2010)
Perhaps Firth’s finest role (for which he won the 2011 Oscar for Best Actor), this Tom Hooper historical drama follows the future King George VI’s work with a speech therapist (Geoffrey Rush, on top form) as he overcomes his childhood stammer to speak before the nation. While clear awards-season material, the impeccable balance and style of its execution and the believability and vulnerability of every performance make the film an overwhelmingly enjoyable and inspiring watch.