Bridget Jones’s diary
Bridget Jones is a feminist issue. A woman in her early thirties, she is obsessed with her body, consumption, weight, relationships, troubled parents, .... luurve’. First a huge publishing, if not literary, success and now a major British movie, it’s a modern take on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, adapted for the screen by Richard Curtis of Notting Hill, Four Weddings and..... fame. Elizabeth, now Bridget, pulled between the love of two men, with her own needs at odds with those of a family so desperate to see her safely married above her station and from which she is struggling to separate. She’s self-aware in a throw-away Cosmopolitan trashy self-help kind of way but all too often she’s self-absorbed and self-hating. She’s more cocktail-party-wise than streetwise. She wants to seem smart, savvy and self-possessed but all too often her foot makes for her mouth and she turns inside-out on herself and we see/feel (depending of course on how much you identify with Bridget) her shame and embarrassment as she commits her latest faux pas, or her inner monologue inadvertently, and sometimes hilariously, spills out. We see her very vulnerable: pissed and falling over alone at home; a half soused single girl surrounded by couples at a nightmarish dinner party; cellulite-dimpled, fleshy thighs falling out of her knickers. She’s a thoroughly postmodern girl.
Colin Firth, in the most obvious casting coup of the film, replays his noble, gusset-moistening, stiff-collared (now as a ‘top-notch’ barrister) aristocratic Darcy, of the mid nineties BBC production of Pride and Prejudice, still just about warm enough in the memory for it to work well. Then there’s Hugh Grant, against whom Darcy is pitted, as the two polar types on Bridget’s romantic horizon, who edits out the trademark bumbling reticence to reveal a greater breadth then had hitherto seemed possible. He plays Daniel, Bridget’s dangerously on-the-loose and seductive boss, who e-mails his way into her knickers.
The movie, essentially a romantic comedy with many of the forms and contemporary clichés (the chorus of best friends including the mandatory unthreatening gay friend) of the genre, contains some very funny running gags and a host of one-offs interwoven with a comedy style in the grand tradition of the British sitcom, to which the narrative structure of the book easily lends itself. The emotional core of the story —also the most debated moment— occurs when Mark Darcy says to Bridget, “I like you just as you are”. Bridget no longer needs to lose weight, improve herself or compete (her slim high-achieving rivals being the bad guys of the movie) because we all want her just as she is. While on the surface and in movie time this sounds like a liberating message, in retrospect it feels like complacency, added to which it causes the film to lose momentum. The resulting required romantic resolution takes a long time to arrive and the ending feels overwrought and unsatisfying.
Renée Zellweger plays Bridget. At first glance this is a surprising choice to play lead in this particularly English satirical comedy of manners - the writers and producers wanted Kate Winslet, who declined for reasons not fully revealed, and subsequently desperately approached the gamut of suitable British performers - but she turns out to be the major coup in what is ultimately a deftly sleight of hand and crafty piece of casting. As an American there’s immediately the problem of accent. However, she not only pulls it off flawlessly —as good as American Gwyneth Paltrow’s regionally neutral middle English accent in the recent and successful British romantic comedy Sliding Doors— in fact, her struggle to communicate fluidly using an English acccent translates seemlessly on screen into Bridget’s struggle to articulate her thoughts and feelings at critical moments. Zellweger, through being an outsider to the cultural milieu of the character she performs, (and this in my opinion is what makes the movie work) excises from the character the narrow parochial tranches of upper-middle class Sloane for which the world has little taste, sympathy or interest, in particular in this post Di era in which corrupt and emotionally illiterate Sloaney royals are still grotesquely parading across our tabloid vision. They tried their best to attract a sub-Di type to the part but were forced instead to go for someone who turns out to be a more universally recognisable woman. To fit the part Zellweger was asked put on an extra 20 pounds of flesh, placing her alongside Robert de Niro (Raging Bull) in that rarefied group of actors who have painfully and heroically transformed themselves to authenticate their performance. Presumably the binge-eating this required helped her get in in character. Added to which, you know she’s much bigger than she wants to be. However, despite all the self-doubt and calorie counting, she manages to give us the in-spite-of-herself sexy and attractive Bridget that the story requires. She needs to be, because, for the film to work, we need to believe that Bridget can attract Grant and Firth, two of Britain’s best known sex symbols. While Bridget will never make it as a feminist icon —she isn’t in control of her life, she’s all nervous ticks and anxiety (brilliantly performed) and barely in control of what pours out of her mouth and even less in control of her body— Renée Zellweger might.
An important and fascinating postscript to the making of the film relates to the problems Zellweger had making the weight. Having had to force feed herself over a number of months to play the part, the actress has now declined a sequel because she would be required to do the same again. This is real life challenging art, in that Renée, unlike Bridget, has taken control of her body by declining the extraordinary demands of the film’s producers and, in-so-doing, has asserted, contrary to the cosy central message of the film, that it does matter how you look and who you are.