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Firth, Colin (1960-)


Main image of Firth, Colin (1960-)

Long viewed as a master of the stiff-upper-lip, a polished light-comic leading man and - thanks to his Darcy in Pride and Prejudice (BBC, 1995) - an upper-class sex-god, Colin Firth has quietly built up a portfolio of much wider range, which finally led to definitive recognition with A Single Man (d. Tom Ford, 2009) and The King's Speech (d. Tom Hooper, 2010) as the actor turned 50.

Born on 10 September 1960 in Grayshott, Hampshire, he spent his early childhood in Nigeria, where his parents were teachers, and a year in America in 1972, before the family returned to settle in the UK. Undistinguished at school, he decided to pursue acting and took odd jobs at the National Youth Theatre and National Theatre prior to studying at the London Drama Centre.

His break came in 1983, when he was cast as a homosexual public-schoolboy-turned-spy in Another Country, a stage play based on the real-life story of Guy Burgess, then as that character's Marxist best friend in the film version the following year (d. Marek Kanievska).

War traumas dominated his early career. In 1986 he starred with Laurence Olivier in the acclaimed miniseries Lost Empires (ITV), based on JB Priestley's novel about a travelling magic show on the eve of World War One. He played a shell-shocked WWI veteran in A Month in the Country (d. Pat O'Connor, 1987) and earned a BAFTA nomination for his performance as a terribly injured soldier returning from the Falklands in Richard Eyre's Tumbledown (BBC, tx. 31/5/1988).

Then came a couple of sociopaths: a repressed cinema-owner in Buenos Aires in Apartment Zero (d. Martin Donovan, 1988) and the Machiavellian seducer in Valmont (France/UK, d. Milos Forman, 1989), the latter an adaptation of Dangerous Liaisons that was pre-empted and overshadowed by Stephen Frears' rival version. After it, Firth went to live with his Valmont co-star, Meg Tilley, in rural British Columbia; their son was born in 1990 and Firth's acting career dwindled until the couple split up in 1993.

After a supporting role in Circle of Friends (US/UK, d. O'Connor, 1995), Firth made a spectacular comeback as Fitzwilliam Darcy - a role he initially declined - in Pride and Prejudice. The actor lent Darcy complex shades of coldness, even caddishness, in the early episodes that went largely unremarked at the time by his international legions of new female fans but earned him another BAFTA nomination.

This ushered in a period of great productivity. After a rare working-class role as a drunken miner in an adaptation of DH Lawrence's The Widowing of Mrs Holroyd (BBC, tx. 14/10/1995), Firth played an aristocratic mine-owner in South America in Nostromo (BBC, 1997), a quietly seething cuckolded husband in The English Patient (US, d. Anthony Minghella, 1996) and Nick Hornby's football-obsessed alter ego in the film of the latter's autobiographical novel, Fever Pitch (d. David Evans, 1997).

After two more moneyed bounders, in A Thousand Acres (US, 1997) and Shakespeare in Love (US, d. John Madden, 1998), he was a visionary, self-absorbed patriarch in My Life So Far (US/UK, d. Hugh Hudson, 1999), a charming wastrel in Noel Coward's Relative Values (UK/US, d. Eric Styles, 2002) and a latter-day Don Quixote in Donovan Quick (BBC, tx. 28/12/2000).

Despite this diverse line-up, Firth continued to be dogged by D'Arcy, but sportingly accepted the role of Mark Darcy, a character 'inspired' by Jane Austen's hero, in the film of Bridget Jones's Diary (US/France/UK, d. Sharon Maguire, 2001). His reward was a third BAFTA nomination for his droll performance as the stuffy human rights lawyer.

He was one of the Nazis debating the Holocaust at the Wannsee Conference in Conspiracy (BBC, tx. 19/5/2001), John Worthing, the decorous bachelor with a rackety double life, in The Importance of Being Earnest (UK/US, d. Oliver Parker, 2002) and the brooding artist Johannes Vermeer in Girl With A Pearl Earring (UK/Luxembourg, d. Peter Webber, 2003). There followed a string of uneven comedies, among them Love Actually (UK/US, d. Richard Curtis, 2003), Nanny McPhee (UK/US, d. Kirk Jones, 2005), St Trinian's (d. Parker/Barnaby Thompson, 2007), Then She Found Me (US, 2007) and Mamma Mia! (US/Germany/UK, d. Phyllida Lloyd, 2008).

Firth acquitted himself well in these, but also found meatier roles. He was memorable as a sleazy, bisexual nightclub entertainer in Atom Egoyan's cerebral murder thriller Where the Truth Lies (Canada/UK, 2005). He played a merchant banker with violent tendencies in Harold Pinter's Celebration (More 4, tx. 26/2/2007), a writer confronting his dying father in And When Did You Last See Your Father? (UK/Eire, d. Anand Tucker, 2007), a bereaved father in Genova (UK/Cayman Islands, d. Michael Winterbottom, 2008) and the degenerate Lord Henry Wotton in Dorian Gray (UK/Cayman Islands, d. Parker, 2009).

Towards the end of the decade, Firth at last found two roles which perfectly fitted his capacity to convey intense yet mute emotion. In A Single Man he was a secretly gay British college professor in Los Angeles mourning the death of his long-term lover, while The King's Speech cast him as the stammering misfit monarch George VI. They earned Firth an Academy Award nomination and the Oscar itself respectively.

In 1997 Firth married the Italian producer-director Livia Giuggioli, with whom he had two more sons. He is a long-standing campaigner for the rights of asylum seekers and tribal peoples and was awarded a CBE in June 2011.

Sheila Johnston

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Another Country (1984)Another Country (1984)

Rupert Everett stars in a tale of public school sexual and political rebellion

Thumbnail image of Pride and Prejudice (1995)Pride and Prejudice (1995)

Andrew Davies' memorable Austen update

Thumbnail image of Tumbledown (1988)Tumbledown (1988)

Lacerating drama about the Falklands War and its aftermath

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