This weekend at the 82nd annual Academy Awards, British thesp Colin Firth will compete for Best Actor for his performance in Tom Ford's A Single Man, in which he stars as a grieving gay professor in 1962 Los Angeles. But just fifteen years ago, Firth vied for (and won) my heart by reaching a bit farther back in the annals of time to play a wealthy 19th century bachelor with a thing for spunky heroines, a haughty but handsome gentleman whose name I will always associate with Colin Firth: Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy.
Many women have a deeply personal relationship with Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, a novel that's induced countless swoons over the years in its various pop cultural iterations. And while we can all argue over which is the very best filmic adaptation of Miss Austen's romantic-comedy of manners (Cinematical's Elisabeth Rappe prefers 2005's Oscar-nominated Keira Knightley-Matthew McFadyen film, for example), I hold tight to my beloved BBC miniseries version, which starred Firth as the quintessential Darcy and Jennifer Ehle as his foil, the strong-willed Elizabeth Bennet.
I'd read and loved Austen's novel in the years before Pride and Prejudice hit the airwaves in the U.S. (January 14, 1996), a few months after it debuted in its six-episode installments in the U.K., so I was perhaps perfectly prepared to see the deliciously drawn-out romantic longing on screen. For many young literature nerds of the female persuasion, I imagine Pride and Prejudice was a gateway drug of sorts to all kinds of historical romance; deep down, aren't we all ripe young heroines bristling against social conventions who delight in flirting with cocky, handsome bachelors who declare their undying love for us just so we can shut them down?
That's where the perfection that was Firth's Darcy came into play. We needed a Darcy who, even after displaying the crustiest brand of upper class condescension, could be forgiven the instant he looked askance at Elizabeth Bennet with appreciation and love, his attentions unseen. A Darcy who carried within him the gentility and refinement of the snooty class and yet also an unquestionable, magnetic masculinity (something a tad lacking in Matthew MacFadyen's Darcy). Colin Firth was such a man. And if you need further proof, just re-watch the infamous lake scene that set thousands of housewives' hearts aflutter, as it did the flustered Elizabeth.
The lake scene embodies most of the reasons I loved Firth in Pride and Prejudice. Beginning with his post-ride dive into the lake (impulsive = hot), Darcy lets loose really for the first time in this key humanizing scene, showing that he's not all stiffness and manners. (Fun fact: screenwriter Andrew Davies, who also wrote nods to Darcy in Bridget Jones's Diary and its sequel, envisioned Firth's dive as a skinny dip before filmmakers agreed to keep him clothed. Boo!) In his wet 'n' clingy white linen shirt and boots, Darcy strides toward his estate and towards the unwitting Elizabeth with a sense of absolute spiritual freedom, something we don't see him (or anyone, really) enjoy in other scenes where social mores keep things strictly business. He clutches a riding crop suggestively to his chest, even as he happens upon the shocked and blushing Elizabeth, who proceeds to look Darcy up and down. (And up and down again.) Darcy stumbles for the suitable salutations but the impropriety of the situation takes over, and he awkwardly and adorably takes his leave; he's aloof as ever once more, but we see that it's only to mask his crippling embarrassment. Meanwhile, Elizabeth's left mulling over Darcy's dripping wet body and wondering exactly what sort of grip he uses on that riding crop. As do we.
In the years since Pride and Prejudice, Colin Firth continued to intermittently bank on his Darcy cache, appearing as "Mark Darcy" in both Bridget Jones films. I'd argue the closest he's come to achieving his trademark brand of fussy-awkward lovability has been as Jamie in Love Actually, a lonely writer who overcomes a language barrier in order to declare his love. His turn in A Single Man is a devastatingly sad, sophisticated, and utterly romantic portrayal of loss and love that any Firth devotee should watch immediately. All of which leaves me with this reluctant admission: his Mr. Darcy days may now be far behind him, but if loving the new brand of Firth's romantic heroism is wrong, then I don't want to be right.