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After dozens of acclaimed performances playing a variety of characters, Colin Firth is riding high on a Venice Best Actor award and an Oscar nomination for playing a gay college professor in A Single Man; what makes this role stand out, asks Andrew L. Urban.

His first Oscar nomination (and his first Best Actor award at the Venice Film Festival 2009) comes for his performance as the 52 year old gay college professor George Falconer, heartbroken after his young lover’s untimely death. But the Brits have been showering Colin Firth with nominations since 1989 (the TV show, Tumbledown), Bridget Jones’ Diary and of course, for his role as Mr Darcy in Pride and Prejudice (1995) – a role for which his millions of fans have awarded him the highest accolade – their undying affection and loyalty.

What is it about this performance that has spurred the voters of so many awards – from the Screen Actors Guild to the Austin Film Critics and (understandably given the subject matter) the San Francisco Film Critics as well as a dozen others?

Colin Firth has played such a wide variety of characters it can hardly be the fact that he’s playing a gay character. He’s played the hapless single father Mr Brown in the family comedy Nanny McPhee and – if you want to talk about creative stretch - the artist Johannes Vermeer in Girl with a Pearl Earring.

But why, for example, wasn’t he more acclaimed for his role as Vince in Atom Egoyan’s Where the Truth Lies (2005), a remarkable performance in a remarkable film. He and Kevin Bacon brought to life two characters (a comedy duo not unlike Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin) bound together by talent and torn apart by fate in such visceral characterisations I am still getting flashbacks. (Alison Lohman is excellent, too.)

"a universally recognisable man of any sexual orientation"

Is it perhaps that Colin Firth isn’t playing just a gay character grieving over his handsome young lover, but a universally recognisable man of any sexual orientation stumped by the tragedy of losing his life partner and almost failing, grappling with the daily details of life in a state of anger, denial, grief and helplessness. Is it perhaps that he’s so loose, so physically free, so unhampered by the conventional touchstone points of romantic comedy, say….

It is such a rich and evocative performance, so easy to accept and to identify with, so effortlessly conveyed yet so sincere, the only moment of slightly forced melodrama coming in the scene where he tries to commit suicide. Tellingly, the scene doesn’t exist in Christopher Isherwood’s novel from which the film is adapted, but is something debuting director Tom Ford (the fashion designer) borrowed from his own family’s experiences.

One of Firth’s characteristics as an actor (see it in evidence in films as different as Bridget Jones’ Diary, Fever Pitch, Love Actually as well as Pride and Prejudice) is his ability to convey the deepest emotional ructions without moving his facial muscles. It’s all in his eyes. This stillness also adds what seems a coldness to his performances, but it’s the dual layers of his emotional output that makes him interesting and always watchable. There’s always more going on, more to give … and we wait for it. He once told a journalist: “I have a kind of neutrality, physically, which has helped me. I have a face that can be made to look a lot better or a lot worse, depending on how I want it to look.”

But then he has also said that he likes playing strange characters. “Some people might say it has something to do with a hidden part of myself, but I think it`s a lot simpler than that: normal people are just not very interesting.”

"academic parents"

Born in Hampshire, England, in September 1960, Firth was brought up by his academic parents; he is on the one hand a typical Englishman who suppresses his feelings (in his case professionally) and on the other a courageous actor who’ll take on any kind of role. Now with an Oscar nod, his choices have just expanded considerably.

He has three films in the works: an American drama, Main Street with director John Doyle, an English historic drama The King’s Speech in which he plays the stammering King George VI for director Tom Hooper, and the post-war thriller, Promised Land for Michael Winterbottom.

Published February 25, 2010

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... in Bridget Jones' Diary

... in Girl with a Pearl Earring

... Love Actually

... Where the Truth Lies

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