Colin Firth: firth class
Men just don't get Colin Firth. Tell people you are going to interview the star of Bridget Jones's Diary, Mamma Mia! -- and now Tom Ford's A Single Man -- and you get two reactions. The women squeal in excitement and the men sigh with boredom. (One male gay friend squealed and sighed.)
Neither reaction does Firth justice. True, he still cuts a fine dash in a black Tom Ford suit, white shirt opened a few temperature-raising buttons. "Why would I dream of wearing anything else?" he says pithily. "I even put it on for my phone interviews."
It was another white shirt that branded Firth as the quintessential English posh totty. In the BBC's 1995 version of Pride and Prejudice, his Mr Darcy dived into a lake in order to cool his desire for Lizzy Bennett. The image of Firth emerging, linen shirt clinging to his manly torso, was seared into the brains of a generation of women.
But teetering on the edge of 50, his career has progressed beyond the damp-shirt school of acting -- even if both his detractors and his most ardent fans have yet to acknowledge it. Twelve hours after he sits in his sharp suit in a London hotel, animatedly describing his love for the character he plays in A Single Man, he will be shortlisted for Best Actor at this year's Academy Awards.
He deserves it for the intensely moving performance he gives as George, a gay English professor in 60s LA, thrown into suicidal grief by the death of his long-term lover. His particular brand of restraint, which has in the past been read as him being uptight, is pitch-perfect for the neurotic, middle-aged George.
Firth is aged in the movie by his severe dark-rimmed glasses, rigidly Brylcreemed hair and the pallor of grief. Yet he is not strait-jacketed by George's need for order and compulsion for neatness. (In one tragic-comic scene, he lines out all the paraphernalia for his suicide and funeral at perfect right angles on his dining table.)
Designer-cum-director Ford allows his camera to hold steadily on Firth's face because he has such amazing nuance of expression. When George receives the phone call that tells him his lover is dead, the camera stays utterly focused on him long after the call has ended. George doesn't need to punch a wall to convey his distress -- it's all written there in Firth's eyes and the crumpling of his face.
"A lot of people talk about the phonecall," says Firth. "Tom was so courageous and patient about letting that take its course ... I put the phone down, and Tom didn't say, 'Cut'. I stayed there until the magazine ran out and I said, 'Okay, how's that?'" He found Ford and the others in the next room, looking at the monitor and passing around the Kleenex. They shot the scene three times, Ford allowing the magazine of film to run out each time.
The film was shot in 21 days but Firth credits first-time director Ford for giving him plenty of creative space. "Tom creates the illusion that you've got all the time in the world," says Firth.
The sad truth is that Firth has been giving nuanced performances like this -- the type that wins awards -- for a long time, but not always in well-known films. Films such as Tumbledown, as far back as 1988, where he played a Falklands soldier who is brain-damaged by a sniper's bullet; or as poet Blake Morrison in And When Did You Last See Your Father (2007).
He has said that he feels he has "done work I've been proud of in films I'm not particularly proud of". Which might explain his appearances in the St Trinian films or even in Mamma Mia!
"That wasn't really your festival nomination film, although it did get some," he says. "And in some ways I think that's just snobbery. We can argue about the qualities of Mamma Mia! but I think it's a superbly made film that's been designed to look like it's been thrown together in an awkward way."
He laughs at the idea that it's one big karaoke hitmaker -- "the boys can't sing, I accept that" -- but defends it to the last. The common perception of him as a gentlemanly type is not unjustified.
He is not, however, all buttoned-up Englishness. We learned that when he agreed to send up his role as the definitive Mr Darcy by playing his parody, Mark Darcy, in Bridget Jones' Diary.
He's also quick to crack a joke, often at his own expense. I wonder if he has adopted some of George's obsessive habits and started ironing his socks. "I wished I could go to a drawer and see all those shirts like that, everything starched and prepared, but it's not me. I just couldn't keep it up," he laughs. When told that Pierce Brosnan has recently said he doesn't think there will be a Mamma Mia! sequel, he feigns surprise and quips: "Oh he nixed it, did he? No, he's going to need the work."
While he might be a fantasy figure for many women -- a scene in A Single Man in which he and young Nicholas Hoult (of About A Boy and Skins) take a skinny dip in the sea will not disappoint -- I'm reminded that he's someone's dad. As I leave to let Firth get ready for the London premiere of the film that night, one of the PR people mentions that his teenage son had just arrived at the suite. "That must be weird," she says, "seeing your dad with the kid from Skins!"
His partners of choice have not been traditional English roses. Although he had a relationship with his Pride and Prejudice co-star Jennifer Ehle for a time, his first son was with the Canadian actress Meg Tilly. He has been married for 14 years now to Italian film producer Livia Giuggioli, with whom he has two more sons. When Firth won Best Actor at the Venice Film Festival last year, he made his acceptance speech in the local lingo. The English everyman is actually pretty cosmopolitan.
"Venice was in some ways the best moment," he says, "because there was no buzz, there was no talk about the film at that stage. My wife's Italian, it was a big moment in lots of ways -- and we showed this film for the first time and it got lots of warmth. I remember thinking, 'it can't feel better than this really'. Everything else is just gravy really."
A day later, he was in the running for an Oscar.
Welcome to the feast, Mr Firth.