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Colin Firth - Biography

Colin Firth

Personal details

Name: Colin Firth
Born: 10 September 1960 (Age: 54)
Where: Grayshott, Hampshire, England
Height: 6' 1"
Awards: Won 1 BAFTA, nominated for 1 Oscar and 1 Golden Globe

All about this star

Biography:

Few actors have ever burrowed as deeply into the national female psyche as Colin Firth. It seems that no British woman of child-bearing age can quite control herself when his name is mentioned. Or rather, when the name of his most famous character is mentioned. Try it as an experiment; walk into any pub or restaurant and shout out "Cab for Mr D'Arcy!" The result will always be the same. No man will express the slightest interest, but every woman's eyes will brighten, a coy smile of delight will appear on her lips and her head will revolve as close to 360 degrees as is possible. Just in case it's him - the Mr D'Arcy.

There is, you see, only one Mr D'Arcy. No modern woman has created her own version from the pages of Jane Austen's classic Pride And Prejudice. Neither will she recall the legions of actors who have made the role their own down the years. No, there's only one, with his naturally curly brown locks and searching look, his seemingly cruel aloofness disguising a heart brimming with sensitivity, his body buff as you like as he rises from the sparkling waters of that famous lake. That's D'Arcy, that's Colin Firth, a man beside whom most women find Brad Pitt about as sexy as his namesake Ingrid.

Now, most actors would despise this kind of attention. They'd find it demeaning, belittling their efforts at thespianism. And, for a while this was the case with Firth, who felt trapped by public perception and considered himself a victim of period typecasting. Then, having toiled for a decade and a half on stage and screen, having reached the heights of  Hollywood starring roles and fallen swiftly backwards, he came to appreciate a success that meant he never wanted for work. That he'd always get another go. Mr D'Arcy made him welcome, gave him access to both the mainstream and the more experimental fare that was his joy. Firth would even go so far as to mock himself and his position by appearing as Bridget Jones's love/hate interest Mark D'Arcy (the fictional Jones worships Firth). Yes, he played the typecasting game, because he knew he could win it, and he'd be wholly justified in 2010 when he found himself Oscar-nominated for his efforts as a  bereaved and suicidal homosexual English professor in A Single Man. He'd been patient and he'd reaped his just reward.

He was born in Grayshott, Hampshire on the 10th of September, 1960, but spent the first four years of his life in Nigeria. His mother Shirley and father David, both children of Methodist missionaries, had met when they were 3 and 5 respectively, and were working in Nigeria as teachers. Colin can still remember his dad driving off to work each day in his VW Beetle. He could still see him when he arrived - the school was close, but not close enough to walk under the scorching African sun. He also recalls his first real friend, a little native boy named Godfrey.

Returning to England with a new sister in tow (Kate, later a voice coach - a brother Jonathan, also an actor would arrive in 1967), the family spent periods out in Essex, in Billericay and Brentwood, before taking off for a year in St Louis when Colin was 12. Shirley had grown up in America and knew the place well, but Colin had a hard time. Back in England he'd been a bit of an outsider. His parents had never allowed the children to watch the "vulgar" new ITV channel, separating him from his classmates. He'd been taken by Marc Bolan and T.Rex on Top Of The Pops and tried learning guitar, but gave up when he discovered lessons would involve Kumbaya and Lord Of The Dance rather than Children Of The Revolution. Instead he used acting as an artistic outlet. Having debuted as Jack Frost in a play at infant school, he now took classes each Saturday.

No artistic or cultural divide from his school-mates, though, could prepare him for life in the States. Here, he's said, he felt like he'd stepped out of Just William while his new peers were just back from Woodstock. He was an unhappy geek amongst hairy rockers, he felt displaced and small, and reacted by becoming rude and defensive.

Back in England again, the family settled in Winchester, David becoming a history lecturer at King Alfred's College while Shirley lectured in comparative religion at the Open University. Colin, meanwhile, attended the local comprehensive, King's School. Life did not improve. He was a troubled teen, scruffy and cocky, and often railing against a middle class whose children progressed via academia while the working class were pushed towards carpentry and other manual skills. That his parents were both lecturers didn't seem to change his views (one supposes that just made him feel guilty), but then aren't most revolutions started by intellectuals? Winchester itself did not help. In the Seventies it was a seething cauldron of squaddies, hard lads and public schoolboys - there was nowhere for angry young Colin to fit in.

Times grew a tad easier at Barton Peveril 6th Form College, in nearby Eastleigh, where Colin would study and his father would teach. Here Colin could sport long hair, beads and orange flares and listen to his beloved Prog Rock - Yes, Genesis and King Crimson. The arrival of punk left him unmoved, he was comfortable as an elegantly wasted freedom fighter. His school-work, however, as is usually the case when long hair and beads enter the equation, went down the pan. Some forward momentum was necessary.

Having declared at the age of 14 that he wished to become an actor, his possibilities were somewhat limited. At 18 he decided to dump college and took off to London where he joined the National Youth Theatre. It didn't send him shooting up through the ranks, he got no further than "third fairy on the left", but he was keen and once his run was done he would stay on at the theatre, sitting in a little cubbyhole answering the phone for the rich and famous. Often, he's said, he was "alone in the building, alone in London".

But he was in the building, with all its contacts and rumours of job-openings, and before long Colin had signed on as a tea-boy in the wardrobe department at Laurence Olivier's National Theatre. This in turn led to an idea - if he was to be good, he had better learn his craft. He enrolled at the London Drama Centre on Prince Of Wales Road in London's Chalk Farm area. This was a hi-octane learning establishment, drawing heavily on the theories of Stanislavsky and thus combining a Russian emotional freedom with a serious Jewish introspection. Firth knew it would be tough, that's why he chose it, but having learned "the reality of the inner world" under coach Freda Kelsall (a TV writer), he soon excelled. Studying 6 days a week for 3 years, he won the lead in the likes of Tartuffe, King Lear and Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, often being asked to play flamboyant types, either paranoid or psychotic. His Hamlet was the stuff of college legend, and headmaster Christopher Fettes told him that he could be the next Paul Schofield. The principal did add a very prescient proviso, though. He said Firth should beware the effect of his matinee idol looks. Even then, Mr Darcy lurked within.

Firth's burgeoning reputation led to instant stage success. His Hamlet having been spotted by talent scouts, he was chosen to replace Daniel Day-Lewis as the lead, Guy Bennett, in the hit West End run of Another Country (Day-Lewis in turn having replaced Rupert Everett who'd brought the play to the West End alongside Kenneth Branagh). So, by June, 1983, he was blowing them away at the Queen's Theatre as the outspokenly homosexual public schoolboy Bennett, battling to find a place outside a stuffy tradition that won't accept him and eventually finding it in the world of espionage - the play being based on the real life tale of Guy Burgess and his treacherous cabal.

At one point, Everett himself took in a performance and was so impressed that he suggested Firth might be perfect as his foil in the upcoming movie version, Everett having already signed on to play Bennett. So there Colin was, making his big screen debut as Tommy Judd, an uncompromisingly principled young man who despises the hypocrisy of the system and embraces Communism openly - he could never sink to spying, could he? And once again he was a success, the character being pretty close to his teenage self back in Winchester. Everett, though, disliked him, finding him too intense, no fun to be around, "a ghastly redbrick socialist" - much as you'd expect from a student of Stanislavsky. Everett, of course, went on to star in Bob Dylan's Hearts Of Fire and be Madonna's best friend.

Firth, meanwhile, returned to play Bennett once more at the Queen's, then moved on to a classy CBS TV production of Camille, alongside the likes of John Gielgud, Ben Kingsley and Billie Whitelaw. Greta Scaachi starred as the beautiful Parisian courtesan of the title, Colin playing the rich and elegant Armand Duval, who falls for Camille and continues their affair even though he knows the scandal will ruin him. It was all looking good.

But Colin was not the type to race after fame., He knew he was still learning and so took off for the far from glamorous surrounds of the Churchill Theatre in Bromley, to play in The Doctor's Dilemma. The next year, 1985, would see him onstage at the Old Vic, as Felix in The Lonely Road. Onscreen there'd be 1919, a psychological drama involving two patients of Sigmund Freud who meet 50 years after their treatment, their stories being told in flashback. In keeping with his former headmaster's words, Colin would play the young Paul Schofield, a youth tortured by his love for his own sister. There'd also be Dutch Girls, where Firth was a member of a schoolboy hockey team playing a tournament in Holland and far more interested in young ladies than the game. He'd be joined in this by James Wilby (a co-star in the stage version of Another Country), Timothy Spall and, as a prostitute who rips the boys off, Ingmar Bergman's daughter.

Much of the next year was taken up with a single project, a huge 7-part miniseries based on JB Priestley's Lost Empires, set around the beginning of WW1 and paralleling the fall of Britain's empire and its music hall tradition. Colin starred as Richard Herncastle, a tongue-tied Yorkshire lad who gets a job as assistant to his magician uncle, dressed in Arabian Nights costumes and helping out in vanishing tricks - Laurence Olivier playing a dreadful comedian who's always on the same bill. Come 1914, conscription begins and Colin is forced to consider an altogether different form of disappearance, but ends up in France anyway, his education being completed amidst the horrors of the Great War.

1987 was another busy year.

Firth stuck with Lost Empires director Alan Grint to play the older version of sickly heir Colin Craven in The Secret Garden. Then there was a brief sojourn in Hollywood filming an F. Scott Fitzgerald tale for TV, Colin playing a posh Brit director forced to work with "difficult" screenwriter Christopher Lloyd. Next, after performing in Desire Under The Elms at the Greenwich Theatre, came his second British film classic (after Another Country), A Month In The Country. Directed by Pat O'Connor, this saw him revisit WW1, or rather its immediate aftermath. As a shell-shocked vet in 1919, he works at restoring an ancient mural in an old church, at the same time restoring himself. Meanwhile, mystery is added by Kenneth Branagh (as said, another to benefit from Another Country) who's digging just outside the graveyard. It was all very British, very Arthurian in its quest for truth and decency.

The next year brought something very different in Apartment Zero. This saw Colin as a repressed and needy cine-club owner in Buenos Aires, whose mother is wasting away in an asylum and whose neighbours make him paranoid - despite one very pretty one being evidently keen to go out with him. He's lonely and in constant existential crisis and, in search of company, takes in confident, good-looking lodger Hans Bochner - a move that proves less than fruitful when Bochner starts befriending all his neighbours. With a series of political killings taking place outside this claustrophobic little world, Apartment Zero was strange, often gruesome stuff, not unlike Fellini. And it was the first sign that Firth was willing to ditch his matinee idol image in order to challenge himself as an actor.

Yet he still did have those looks and he couldn't turn down every opportunity to use them. So when Oscar winning director Milos Forman offered him the title role in Valmont, an earthy, physical take on the novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses, he had to take it. Michelle Pfeiffer was offered the part of the Marquise de Merteuil, but opted instead to play Madame de Tourvel in a rival production, to be named Dangerous Liaisons, Annette Bening stepping into the part as Firth's co-conspirator. Lustful, manipulative aristocrats in 18th Century France, they would toy with the affections and bodies of others, until real emotions leads to the downfall of them both.

Budgeted at $35 million, much of the money being spent on sumptuous sets, Valmont was an excellent production, but was beaten to the punch by Dangerous Liaisons. With John Malkovich and Glenn Close both remarkably devious in the leads, and with Pfeiffer, Uma Thurman and Keanu Reeves providing starry support, this was a superior exercise in sexual mind-games and, released several months before Valmont, gave its competitor little chance of success.

For Firth this was not quite the disappointment it might have been as he immediately found himself at the centre of the huge controversy surrounding the screening in the UK of Tumbledown. Directed by Richard Eyre, this saw him as Robert Lawrence, a Royal Scots Guard paralysed by a bullet in the brain during the Falklands War, who returns to the UK to find the conflict's dead are being celebrated but the wounded utterly ignored. Angry at this injustice and at his inglorious fate, he fights his corner, only to be tossed a medal and told to shut up.

The film was an important work, and did much to force the government to reconsider its treatment of war victims. But Firth himself was disappointed. Despite having been BAFTA-nominated and lauded to the rafters for his performance, he felt he had not got inside the skin of the real Robert Lawrence. It was only later that he'd recognise the quality of his efforts.

Now, rather than using Valmont to secure a Hollywood career, Colin shied away from fame once more. In fact he turned down many Hollywood meetings (later he would explain this was out of "snobbery and fear"). First, having literally begged for the role, he co-starred alongside Peter O'Toole in Wings Of Fame. A comedy-satire of overblown film-making that also investigated the nature of fame and happiness, this saw O'Toole as a famous actor who has stolen credit for a book by the struggling Firth. For this Firth shoots him dead, then is killed himself, both of them ending up in an afterlife hotel reserved for people still famous among the living. When your name is forgotten, out you go, so Firth, as a minor celebrity killer, does not have long to sort things out.

Next came Femme Fatale which saw him as a botanist and painter in LA. Falling for and marrying freaky Lisa Zane, he's much perturbed when she leaves him and, with the help of an artist friend (played by Zane's brother Billy), follows her through an art underground riddled with drugs and perviness. There'd be yet more wacky artiness in Out Of The Blue, where Colin played a wannabe film-maker who can only relate to the world through the lens of a camera. Unable to separate art from life he tries to control his existence by organising a series of "spontaneous" events around him, and somehow draws Catherine Zeta-Jones into his web of silliness.

Also in 1991, Colin would appear onstage at the Comedy Theatre as Aston in Harold Pinter's The Caretaker, but he would not be seen again for two full years. It wasn't the failure of his recent movies that provoked this (though he had disliked Femme Fatale so much he warned the public against seeing it). Rather he was now in an intense relationship with actress Meg Tilly, who he'd met when she played Madame de Tourvel in Valmont and with whom he'd had a son, Will, born in 1990. Having been Oscar nominated in 1985 for Agnes Of God, Tilly had achieved a level of fame with which she was deeply unhappy.

So, having hooked up with the equally retiring Firth, she took him off to a cabin in British Columbia where they would make furniture and, well, there wasn't much else to do. Indeed sometimes the snow drifted so deep they couldn't even get out the front door for a walk.

It was a rough place, wholly isolated, with nothing much between the couple's cabin and the Arctic Circle. After two years, Firth began to feel the pressure. Desperate to escape these claustrophobic surrounds, to stay connected to the thespian world he loved, he sent his CV to several Vancouver theatres, even offering to do workshops for kids. He got no reply. Eventually, after two years in the wilderness, his relationship with Tilly came to an end.

Naturally, all momentum in his career was now lost. Not that this particularly bothered him as more interesting roles were generally to be found in lower-budget pieces. In 1993, he returned to the stage, taking the lead in Chatsky at London's Almeida, then played John McCarthy in the TV movie Hostages, concerning the kidnap victims of Hezbollah in Beirut in 1986. He followed this with The Hour Of The Pig, playing Richard Coutois, a Parisian lawyer in mediaeval France who moves to a small village where he falls for a gypsy girl and ends up defending her against charges of witchcraft - her, some rats and a pig. Well, it was France, after all.

Now came another "erotic thriller" of the Femme Fatale ilk, Playmaker. Here Jennifer Rubin was an aspiring actress who seeks tuition from eccentric, mindgame-playing coach Colin. He guarantees her success, as long as she goes along with his unpleasant regime of seduction and treachery. Both leads played it well, but the screenplay was poor, leading Firth to again warn off potential viewers. It had been a conveniently short shoot, he said, and he'd needed the money.

Along with Playmaker, 1994 brought two British TV productions in Master Of The Moor and The Deep Blue Sea. The former, based on a Ruth Rendell novel, saw Firth as a creepy denizen of Dartmoor who becomes a suspect in the serial murder of blonde women. The latter, a BBC presentation of the Terence Ratigan play, directed by Karel Reisz, saw Penelope Wilton leave her comfortable marriage for charming but inconstant flying ace Colin who, of course, dumps her for the chance of new adventures. This was an excellent part for Firth who managed to bring genuine depth to the no-good cad Freddie Page.

He did much the same in his next feature, Circle Of Friends, adapted from the Maeve Binchy novel and directed by Pat O'Connor, with whom he'd earlier worked on A Month In The Country. This 50s-set drama followed the lives and loves of three Irish girls, one of whom, a purposefully glamorous Saffron Burrows, sets her sights on Colin, heir to much family land. He seems to reciprocate her feelings but, as pressure comes to marry into money, he turns into a right bounder. The movie was very well received and provided a breakthrough for Minnie Driver, who'd played alongside Firth in Chatsky and been recommended by him to O'Connor.

And now it happened. Ever since Another Country Firth had been inundated with scripts involving public school types and beastly aristocrats. This had not been easy for the former Winchester hippy who'd railed against such social privileges. So when he was offered the part of Fitzwilliam Darcy in a miniseries adaptation of Jane Austen's Pride And Prejudice it seemed tiresomely predictable. This was surely the kind of role Christopher Fettes was warning him about all those years before. He turned it down. Several times.

But then he reconsidered. After all, what was wrong with mainstream acclaim? Why be snobby and elitist if it was just going to bring you films like Femme Fatale and Playmaker? He decided to do it and, in his quietly tumultuous affair with Jennifer Ehle's Elizabeth Bennet, seized the hearts of millions. He certainly seized the heart of Ehle, with whom he enjoyed a brief relationship. But what would those millions have thought had they known it was not Firth diving into the lake in that famous scene, but a stunt double (apparently insurers were concerned about Weil's Disease, sometimes caught from rats' urine in the water)? Well, obviously they would have cared not a jot. It was Darcy coming OUT of the water that counted, not Darcy going in.

As might have been predicted, Firth did not seek to bolster his new-found sex symbol image, though he was secretly relieved to have taken that dreaded step into the mainstream. There was one interesting trip to Hollywood at the behest of Steven Spielberg but, after listening to the great mogul chatting for some considerable time, he realised the meeting was just that - an informal chat. Instead he used his status (Pride and Prejudice saw him BAFTA-nominated for the second time) to win the more interesting roles for which he'd trained so hard at the London Drama Centre. First came a BBC adaptation of the DH Lawrence play The Widowing Of Mrs Holroyd. Here he was a drunken beast of a miner who's wished dead by his wife Zoe Wannamaker and is killed in an accident at the pit. But he's not, we're shown by another sensitive Firth performance, just a beast. He's wracked by a belief that his wife thinks him beneath her, but cannot articulate his fear.

1996 brought two major period dramas.

The first was the multi-Oscar-winning wartime drama The English Patient where, in Cairo before WW2, he'd be a member of a team mapping the desert. When war breaks out he leaves to secretly map Ethiopia for the British government, leaving his plucky, beautiful wife Kristin Scott Thomas to begin a passionate affair with an obsessive, mysterious Ralph Fiennes. Upon his return, Firth discovers the romance but says nothing, boiling within but biting his lip, Firth brilliantly hiding his emotions as he has done in so many roles. He tries to keep his wife from returning to her lover, but she cannot resist and finally we see Firth's own passion, flashing across his face - malevolent, vengeful and distraught, his English reserve drowned in bitterness - as he flies an aeroplane, with Thomas in the front, directly at Fiennes on the ground, inadvertently bringing Fiennes more pain than he could possibly have imagined. Firth then moved on to a TV miniseries of Joseph Conrad's Nostromo where, now married to Kristin's sister Serena Scott-Thomas, he inherits a silver mine in South America only for his possession to be threatened by civil war.

Having been pretend-married to these two glamorous sisters, he now got hitched in real life. On the set of Nostromo he met Italian documentary film producer Livia Guiggioli. The couple would be married in Tuscany in 1997, accompanied by a plethora of paparazzi, and produce two sons, Luca and Mateo. Much of Firth's time would henceforth be spent either in Rome with his new family, or in Los Angeles with son Will (Meg Tilly having also tired of the outback).

Film-wise, he now moved back closer to the present day with Nick Hornby's Fever Pitch, playing a scruffy teacher obsessed with Arsenal, an obsession that severely tests his relationship with Ruth Gemmell. Firth would later contribute a short story, The Department Of Nothing, to Hornby's Speaking With The Angel collection for the TreeHouse Trust, in aid of autistic children. Written from the perspective of an 11-year-old boy, it was his first published work, though he'd been honing his skills for many years.

He followed Fever Pitch with A Thousand Acres, a return to Hollywood that saw him at last work with his lost Valmont co-star Michelle Pfeiffer. A reworking of King Lear, this saw ageing farmer Jason Robards attempt to split his spread between quarrelling daughters Pfeiffer, Jessica Lange and Jennifer Jason Leigh, Colin playing a handsome neighbour who seduces both Pfeiffer and Lange, splitting their marriages in the process - in short, another total cad. Then again, none of the men had any redeeming features in this film, it was that kind of movie.

He moved on to another Oscar-fest with Shakespeare In Love, as the odious Lord Wessex, a man keen to marry Gwyneth Paltrow's Viola in order to get his hands on her dad's money. But Joseph Fiennes' William Shakespeare is also after her, and finds time amidst his struggle with Rupert Everett's Marlowe to win her hand - the second time Firth had been cuckolded onscreen by a Fiennes.

Colin now entered the most prolific period of his career, with 1999 bringing no less than 5 appearances. In Hugh Hudson's My Life So Far he played an inventor and scientist in 1920s Scotland who, though apparently happily married, reveals a romantic but unpleasantly selfish side as he battles with his own young son for the affections of his uncle's wife, Irene Jacob. Next came The Secret Laughter Of Women, an odd romantic comedy where he played an ex-pat in the south of France who struggles with a priest and a community he does not understand over a young Nigerian single mother.

Having been punched out by Rowan Atkinson when he played Shakespeare in the special edition of Blackadder shown in the Millennium Dome, and turned up as the father of the two kids nannied by Jodhi May in The Turn Of The Screw, he moved on to Donovan Quick, a kind of update of Don Quixote. Here he was a stranger in town, attempting to atone for past sins by helping out down-on-her-luck Katy Murphy and starting a bus service to rival the local meanie's Windmill Transport (Windmill Transport - geddit?).

Having seen in the new millennium with two stints in Three Days Of Rain at the Donmar Warehouse, Firth next showed in Noel Coward's Relative Values, where countess Julie Andrews' son brings home starlet Jeanne Tripplehorn, who's horrified to discover the family maid is her sister. Colin stood out as the camp and foppish cousin, an amused observer of this social chaos.

And then back came Mr Darcy. One of the women who had thrilled to Colin's performance was writer Helen Fielding, and her hit novel Bridget Jones's Diary was loosely based on that Austen production. And who better to play Bridget's Mark Darcy than Darcy himself? Exhibiting an enviable good humour about it all, in stepped Colin, torturing Renee Zellweger with his pride and prejudice and scrapping hilariously with Hugh Grant. Another huge hit was had, and another BAFTA nomination received.

His next effort could not have been more different. Re-teaming with his A Month In The Country co-star Kenneth Branagh, he now appeared in Conspiracy, about the Wannsee Conference where the Nazis organised the extermination of the Jews. Alongside Branagh's Heydrich and Stanley Tucci's Eichmann, Firth was superb as Dr Wilhelm Stuckhart, the brilliant bureaucrat arguing for mass sterilisation, and was Emmy-nominated for his work.

Now came Londinium, a comedy concerning itself with compatibility and fidelity, where Colin was a TV producer on a show starring his needy, manipulative American wife Mariel Hemingway.

She falls for the scriptwriter, he grows closer to the make-up girl (Irene Jacob once more), and there is much confusion, much of it due to Firth's hilarious habit of downing pints at record speed and inviting people outside "to let off a little steam" - that is, punch them out with exquisite comic timing. Really, his decimation of Jack Dee and others was side-splitting. And there'd be more confusion in his next big screen release, The Importance Of Being Earnest, which saw him co-headline yet again with Rupert Everett as the sly pair pursue the hands of Frances O'Connor and Reese Witherspoon. A caustic Lady Bracknell was provided by Judi Dench, an Oscar-winning Queen Elizabeth in Shakespeare In Love.

2003 would bring yet another reunion in Hope Springs, written by Charles Webb, author of The Graduate. Here Colin played an artist who, thinking he's been dumped by girlfriend Minnie Driver (his co-star in Circle Of Friends and onstage in Chatsky), shifts to New England where he's refreshed by a cast of quirky characters, including brassy motel owner Mary Steenburgen. Having fallen for simple homegirl Heather Graham he has his life turned upside down once more when the devious Driver arrives, asking what the hell he thinks he's up to.

The same year brought the extremely lightweight What A Girl Wants where an American teen (Amanda Bynes, star of the hit Amanda Show) discovers her birth father is Colin's Sir Henry Dashwood, owner of much of inner London. Will her natural sweetness and irrepressible good humour break through his cold English reserve, or will he have her put in the stocks then deported? Far more worthwhile was Girl With A Pearl Earring, where Firth played a brooding Johannes Vermeer, finding a muse in new servant Scarlett Johansson. But while Firth is dealing on an aesthetic level, his sponsor Tom Wilkinson is after some hot muse-nookie. It was a beautiful piece, its look heavily influenced by Vermeer's work, the kind of movie Colin had always been seeking.

He ended 2003 with a bang, reuniting with Hugh Grant in Richard Curtis's Love Actually. This was a kind-hearted melange of 10 different love stories, Colin appearing as a writer who catches his girlfriend in bed with his brother (he gives good grief, does Colin) and flees to the south of France, where he falls for his Portuguese housekeeper, seeking love across the language barrier. It was, naturally, an enormo-hit.

2004 would be equally busy. First would come Trauma, a psycho-thriller that saw him awake from a coma to find his wife is dead. Moving home, he's befriended by new neighbour Mena Suvari, but then begins to have visions of his wife that push him towards breakdown. Following this was the Bridget Jones sequel, The Edge Of Reason, from which Colin shied away till Richard Curtis rewrote the script.

Starting some four weeks after the original ended, it saw Bridget already uncomfortable with her darling Mr Darcy, after discovering he's a Tory and a repressed, public school, underpants-folding Tory to boot. She leaves him, thereby launching another confrontation between Colin and his reprobate rival, Hugh Grant.

2005 would begin with what appeared to be a step backwards. In Nanny McPhee, adapted by Emma Thompson from Christianna Brand's Nurse Matilda books, he played the recently widowed father of seven unruly kids, who eventually hires Thompson's magical governess. It was a role he could have performed in his sleep. Far more challenging would be Where The Truth Lies, directed by maverick Atom Egoyan and written by Rupert Holmes, a musician who'd hit big with the incredibly irritating Escape (The Pina Colada Song). Digging into the dark underbelly of fame, this saw Firth and Kevin Bacon as a Fifties double act, much like Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, who split following the discovery of a dead girl in their hotel room. Fast forward to the Seventies, when journalist Alison Lohman arrives to uncover a dreadful secret story of treachery and lust. As the Martin figure, Colin would be expected to sing, charm and play the straight-man, probably his toughest assignment yet.

At this point Firth would have several exciting projects in the pipeline. First there'd be Toyer, adapted from Gardner McKay's lauded novel and to be directed by Brian De Palma. This was to see Colin as a manipulative maniac who wins the trust of young women and then keeps them in a state of terrified subjugation by means of mind-control and powerful drugs. His English Patient co-star Juliette Binoche would play the neurologist who treats the women and attempts to form a psychological profile of the beast. Unfortunately, as De Palma struggled with James Ellroy's The Black Dahlia, the project would not get off the ground. Neither would The Dead Wait, based on a Paul Herzberg play where Firth was to play CO Franz Louw, seeking retribution for events in the Angolan War of 1983.

Instead, he moved on to the BBC drama Born Equal where he'd play a wealthy financier who, out celebrating his latest gigantic bonus, has an unpleasant encounter with an aggressive beggar in the subway. Reassessing his life, he secretly volunteers to help the homeless and dispossessed at a nearby Swiss Cottage shelter and becomes close to Nichola Burley, a teenager fleeing her violent stepfather. Inappropriately, he opens up to her emotionally, in a way he cannot with his pregnant wife Emilia Fox who believes he's having an affair - all of it moving remorselessly towards disaster. It was gritty stuff, and mostly improvised.

Just as bleak would be a Channel 4 filming of Harold Pinter's Celebration, set in a restaurant, where Michael Gambon and his wife Penelope Wilton (Firth's co-star in The Deep Blue Sea back in 1994) would be enjoying their wedding anniversary along with his brother James Bolam and her sister Julia McKenzie, themselves a couple. At a  nearby table would be banker Firth and his former secretary wife Janie Dee, discussing the future and themselves. Dee tries to boost his confidence but can't help but note his lack of clear personality, while Firth describes himself as a psychopath. Everyone's hiding their true feelings, verbally flaying each other, with Dee undermining Firth's masculinity and he in turn calling her a  prick.

Now would come a real challenge in The Last Legion, a product of the Dino Di Laurentiis company, Firth's first epic since The English Patient and his first real action lead. Here young Thomas Sangster is crowned head of a failing Roman empire only to be orphaned and deposed when invading Goths take over. He's imprisoned on Capri with his brilliant tutor Ben Kingsley (alongside whom Firth had appeared in Camille, 23 years previously), then rescued by Firth's military commander and his Byzantine swordswoman friend Aishwarya Rai. All of them then take off for Britain to find the army of the title, the only one still loyal to the emperor and the empire's last hope. It was a strange role for Firth to take, more of a physical challenge than a mental one. Indeed, it was a strange film all round, seemingly unsure if it was a historical blockbuster or simple family fun. Its lack of weight certainly counted against it at the US box-office, where it took only $6 million against a budget of $67 million. It was unlikely that Firth would ever be asked to wield a sword in anger again.

His next two releases of 2007 were more typically dramatic Firth fare. First would come the emotionally fraught And When Did You Last See Your Father?, directed by Anand Tucker, one of the producers of Girl With A Pearl Earring, where Firth returns home to spend a final few days with his dad Jim Broadbent (his Bridget Jones co-star), now dying of cancer. Firth is clearly conflicted as he bears a huge grudge against Broadbent and, in flashbacks, we come to see why as the flawed and funny Broadbent is seen to be a stubborn chancer who's seldom openly honest with his son but also a good-hearted, adventurous soul who tries to gee up the bookish boy . Unable to see his father's good side, Firth remembers only the (inadvertent) humiliations and a possible affair Broadbent may have had with wife Juliet Stevenson's sister. What Firth wants and needs is a heart-to-heart with Broadbent, but his dad remains elusive as the end approaches, causing Firth's anger and confusion to rise.

Firth was excellent in the part, both cold and caring with his sick father, loving and distant with his wife Gina McKee, tender with his mother and passionate and lost with his former lover Elaine Cassidy. Tears were unavoidable, the movie was merciless in that respect.

Next would come Then She Found Me, the directorial debut of Helen Hunt, a smart and subtle dramedy. Here Hunt would play a New York schoolteacher who, at the age of 39, is finally having a long-wanted child with new husband Matthew Broderick. However, her life begins to crumble when Broderick gets cold feet, her adoptive mother dies and talkshow host Bette Midler claims she's Hunt real mum. In the midst of this emotional melee Hunt would begin a relationship with Firth, the sweet-natured and recently divorced father of one of her students. Once more he'd excel at disguising his feelings, then letting them burst forth in one scene where he exhibits such anguish and fury he causes Hunt to think again.

Firth's final movie of 2007 would be St Trinian's, an update of the Alistair Sim classics and a reunion with his Importance Of Being Earnest director Oliver Parker. Here the infamous institution would be run by Firth's many-time co-star Rupert Everett, this time in drag as Miss Fritton. As ever it's a hot-bed of bullying, jealousy, violence and black market crime, but everyone pulls together when the school faces financial ruin, the girls plotting a raid on the National Gallery from which they hope to steal - ho ho - Vermeer's Girl With A Pearl Earring. This was one of several jokes based on Firth's career, another would see a dog named Mr Darcy shag his leg. It really was that funny. Firth himself would play a hardline education minister set on closing St Trinian's. However, he's also Everett's ex-lover and thus may be swayed. With good reason the critics despised the film but it was aimed successfully at a teen girl audience, doubling its money in the UK alone.

2008 would see a further four Firth releases. First would come a return to Hollywood with The Accidental Husband, directed by Griffin Dunne and co-starring Uma Thurman and Jeffrey Dean Morgan. Here Thurman would play a talk radio love doctor who advises firefighter Morgan's fiancee to dump him. Outraged, he decides to get his own back on her by hacking into the marriage licence data-base and faking documents that make it look like Thurman is married to him, thereby queering her upcoming nuptials with gentleman publisher Firth. Morgan then inveigles his way into Thurman's life, trying to win her for himself, the film being in the little-guy-wins-high-class-lady spirit of the recent hit Knocked Up.  Firth's part as a decent guy cuckolded would be fairly thankless and the film would bomb.

This could not be said of Firth's next venture, the Abba musical Mamma Mia! Here Meryl Streep's daughter Amanda Seyfried is about to be married on her Greek island home.

Knowing her real father is one of three lovers Streep took in a particularly wild period, she invites them all, hoping to discover the truth. Thus Firth, Pierce Brosnan and Stellan Skarsgard all show up and bunk down together as the songs are sung and the big question asked. Firth would be a typically bumbling Brit banker. Though formerly a punk known as Headbanger he's now shy and retiring, and exceedingly pleased to have a daughter as he's never married and is secretly gay. All the singing and dancing, of course, bring him out of his gay shell in the end, and everyone's happy, especially the audiences who turned screenings of the film into special events, dressing up and singing along. Noting this response, the producers would release a karaoke version with lyrics on the bottom of the screen, keeping the movie's long run alive and eventually taking a massive $600 million worldwide, including a record £68 million in the UK. It would be Firth's biggest hit and well deserved as he'd shown much bottle in daring to sing and, in the final credits, even dressing up in glam rock gear and throwing a few Travolta poses.

Firth would follow this giant success with Michael Winterbottom's far more low-key and infinitely more moving Genova. Here Firth would play a recently widowed university lecturer, taking his two daughters to live in Italy. The older girl deals with her pain by becoming aggressively challenging and flirting with boys, while the other begins to see her mum, Hope Davis, wherever she looks. Firth must deal with this, as well as his own grief and a fresh relationship with new colleague Catherine Keener. The film would be compared to the classic Don't Look Now in that it's set in Italy, imbued with a dreamy sense of displacement and does not travel down its expected path.

Next would come Easy Virtue, Firth's second Noel Coward film after Relative Values in 2000, and also a reunion with his faithless English Patient spouse Kristin Scott Thomas. Set between the wars, this would see young Ben Barnes bring his new American love, motor racer Jessica Biel, home to his  family's decaying country pile. Here they meet Barnes' mother, a toxic Scott Thomas, seemingly set on breaking the couple up, and his distracted and dotty father Firth, apparently deeply depressed by his unhappy marriage. As the film progresses we gradually come to understand Scott Thomas's real reasons for wishing to keep outsiders away, and the terrible tragedy behind Firth's hangdog demeanour.

Firth would play a very different character in Dorian Gray, directed by Oliver Parker who'd earlier helmed Firth in another Oscar Wilde film, The Importance Of Being Earnest. as well as St Trinian's. Here Firth's recent co-star Ben Barnes would play the titular Gray, newly arrived in Victorian London to inherit his grandfather's estate.

Falling in with Firth's decadent Sir Henry Wootton, a man who believes youth and beauty to be the only things worth having, he's taken to the city's naughtiest flesh-pots, indulging himself for years but never aging, his sinful excesses instead taking their toll on a portrait painted of him by Ben Chaplin. An utter swine, Firth would enjoy Gray's fall from grace, but would become concerned when Gray turns his attention to Firth's own daughter, the young suffragette Rebecca Hall, showing impressive hypocrisy in trying to protect his daughter from a wickedness he has himself brought into being.

After Dorian Gray, Firth's second film of 2009 would see him finally rewarded for his efforts. Though inattentive viewers still saw him as the brooding D'Arcy, movies such as Trauma, Genova and Girl With A Pearl Earring, even Mamma Mia! and The Last Legion, had seen him progress far beyond being a mere heart-throb. Indeed, he'd become an absolute master at playing characters repressing their emotions - see The English Patient, And When Did You Last See Your Father?, so many others - and this he would do once more, to great effect, in A Single Man. Set in 1962, this would see him as an English professor in Los Angeles and would follow him through what we believe will be his last day as he seems set on suicide at its end. Crushed by the death of his lover, asked to avoid the funeral, tempted by student Nicholas Hoult, forced to hide his real self from a violently disapproving society, he attempts to pass his final hours with quiet dignity, taking a final, elegant dinner with Julianne Moore, a woman herself driven to alcoholism by social repression.  All of Firth's thwarted hopes, his love and his pain would flicker across his impassive face, glitter in his eyes. Despite the tact of his carefully chosen words he'd say it all, and his performance would see him win the Vopli Cup at Venice and bring nominations for a Golden Globe, a BAFTA and an Oscar.

He'd end 2009 with two examples of festive fun. First there'd be Robert Zemeckis's performance capture version of A Christmas Carol, with Jim Carrey's playing Scrooge and all his ghosts. Firth, squeezing into skin-tight spandex for the filming process, would play Ebeneezer's cheerful nephew, Fred. Then there'd be a sequel to his St Trinian's hit in The Legend Of Fritton's Gold, again directed by Oliver Parker and starring Rupert Everett. This time the plot would concern a hidden hoard of pirate treasure, a wicked sect devoted to the subjugation of women, and the true identity of William Shakespeare, with Everett and Firth rekindling their old romance and even performing an alternative Romeo and Juliet at the Globe. Far more serious would be an performance on the BBC's Arena programme, Harold Pinter - A Celebration where he'd appear alongside Jeremy Irons, Jude Law, Michael Sheen and Alan Rickman, as well as former co-stars Penelope Wilton, Gina McKee and Janie Dee.

Firth would turn up right at the end, revisiting Aston, the character he'd played in The Caretaker at the Comedy Theatre back in 1991, sorrowfully but resignedly describing the horror of the botched electro-shock treatment that's wrecked his life.

As well as all the Oscar fuss, 2010 would bring yet more variety. In Main Street he'd play a man of mystery who arrives in a small down-at-heel North Carolina town that's breathing its last. Renting a warehouse from a formerly wealthy Ellen Burstyn, he brings new business that may turn around the lives of the residents. But Firth gets involved in their personal as well as their professional lives, and he may well be putting them all in harm's way. Beyond this there'd be The King's Speech in which he'd star as King George VI, reluctantly taking the throne after the abdication of Guy Pearce's Edward VIII and battling against his terrible stammer with the help of unorthodox Australian speech therapist Geoffrey Rush. Backed by his wife, Helena Bonham Carter, he'd then proceed to rally his nation against the Nazis. Also appearing would be his Dutch Girls co-star of 25 years before Timothy SpallMichael Gambon from Celebration and Mrs D'Arcy herself, Jennifer Ehle.

Colin Firth is pretty much where he wants to be. With that Academy Award nomination behind him, he no longer needs the potent memory of Mr D'Arcy to win him the interesting parts he craves. It remains to be seen whether increasing age will bring yet more actorly gravitas and whether he'll really become a new Paul Scofield but, given his progress through a topsy-turvy career, you wouldn't bet against it.

Dominic Wills

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Gallery

  • HOLLYWOOD, CA - DECEMBER 06:  (L-R) Actors Mark Strong, Gary Oldman and Colin Firth arrive at the premiere of Focus Features' "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" at Arclight Cinema's Cinerama Dome on December 6, 2011 in Hollywood, California.  (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
    Premiere Of Focus Features' "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" - Red Carpet
    HOLLYWOOD, CA - DECEMBER 06: (L-R) Actors Mark Strong, Gary Oldman and Colin Firth arrive at the premiere of Focus Features' "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" at Arclight Cinema's Cinerama Dome on December 6, 2011 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
  • HOLLYWOOD, CA - DECEMBER 06:  (L-R) Actors Mark Strong, Gary Oldman and Colin Firth arrive at the premiere of Focus Features' "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" at Arclight Cinema's Cinerama Dome on December 6, 2011 in Hollywood, California.  (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
    Premiere Of Focus Features' "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" - Red Carpet
    HOLLYWOOD, CA - DECEMBER 06: (L-R) Actors Mark Strong, Gary Oldman and Colin Firth arrive at the premiere of Focus Features' "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" at Arclight Cinema's Cinerama Dome on December 6, 2011 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
  • HOLLYWOOD, CA - DECEMBER 06: (L-R) Actors Gary Oldman, Colin Firth and director Tomas Alfredson arrive at the premiere of Focus Features' "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" at Arclight Cinema's Cinerama Dome on December 6, 2011 in Hollywood, California.  (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
    Premiere Of Focus Features' "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" - Red Carpet
    HOLLYWOOD, CA - DECEMBER 06: (L-R) Actors Gary Oldman, Colin Firth and director Tomas Alfredson arrive at the premiere of Focus Features' "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" at Arclight Cinema's Cinerama Dome on December 6, 2011 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
  • HOLLYWOOD, CA - DECEMBER 06:  (L-R) Actors Mark Strong, Gary Oldman, Colin Firth and Director Tomas Alfredson arrive at the premiere of Focus Features' "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" at Arclight Cinema's Cinerama Dome on December 6, 2011 in Hollywood, California.  (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
    Premiere Of Focus Features' "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" - Red Carpet
    HOLLYWOOD, CA - DECEMBER 06: (L-R) Actors Mark Strong, Gary Oldman, Colin Firth and Director Tomas Alfredson arrive at the premiere of Focus Features' "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" at Arclight Cinema's Cinerama Dome on December 6, 2011 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
  • HOLLYWOOD, CA - DECEMBER 06:  Actor Colin Firth arrives at the premiere of Focus Features' "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" at Arclight Cinema's Cinerama Dome on December 6, 2011 in Hollywood, California.  (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
    Premiere Of Focus Features' "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" - Red Carpet
    HOLLYWOOD, CA - DECEMBER 06: Actor Colin Firth arrives at the premiere of Focus Features' "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" at Arclight Cinema's Cinerama Dome on December 6, 2011 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
  • LONDON, ENGLAND - MARCH 27:  Actor Gary Oldman with his Empire Icon Award and actor Colin Firth with his Best Actor Award presented by Jameson Irish Whiskey during the Jameson Empire Awards held at Grosvenor House Hotel, London, England on 27 March 2011.  (Photo by Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images for Jameson)
    Jameson Empire Awards - Press Room
    LONDON, ENGLAND - MARCH 27: Actor Gary Oldman with his Empire Icon Award and actor Colin Firth with his Best Actor Award presented by Jameson Irish Whiskey during the Jameson Empire Awards held at Grosvenor House Hotel, London, England on 27 March 2011. (Photo by Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images for Jameson)
  • LONDON, ENGLAND - MARCH 27:  Actor Gary Oldman with his Empire Icon Award and actor Colin Firth with his Best Actor Award presented by Jameson Irish Whiskey during the Jameson Empire Awards held at Grosvenor House Hotel, London, England on 27 March 2011.  (Photo by Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images for Jameson)
    Jameson Empire Awards - Press Room
    LONDON, ENGLAND - MARCH 27: Actor Gary Oldman with his Empire Icon Award and actor Colin Firth with his Best Actor Award presented by Jameson Irish Whiskey during the Jameson Empire Awards held at Grosvenor House Hotel, London, England on 27 March 2011. (Photo by Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images for Jameson)
  • LONDON, ENGLAND - MARCH 27:  Actor Gary Oldman with his Empire Icon Award and actor Colin Firth with his Best Actor Award presented by Jameson Irish Whiskey during the Jameson Empire Awards held at Grosvenor House Hotel, London, England on 27 March 2011.  (Photo by Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images for Jameson)
    Jameson Empire Awards - Press Room
    LONDON, ENGLAND - MARCH 27: Actor Gary Oldman with his Empire Icon Award and actor Colin Firth with his Best Actor Award presented by Jameson Irish Whiskey during the Jameson Empire Awards held at Grosvenor House Hotel, London, England on 27 March 2011. (Photo by Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images for Jameson)
  • LONDON, ENGLAND - MARCH 27:  Actor Gary Oldman with his Empire Icon Award and actor Colin Firth with his Best Actor Award presented by Jameson Irish Whiskey during the Jameson Empire Awards held at Grosvenor House Hotel, London, England on 27 March 2011.  (Photo by Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images for Jameson)
    Jameson Empire Awards - Press Room
    LONDON, ENGLAND - MARCH 27: Actor Gary Oldman with his Empire Icon Award and actor Colin Firth with his Best Actor Award presented by Jameson Irish Whiskey during the Jameson Empire Awards held at Grosvenor House Hotel, London, England on 27 March 2011. (Photo by Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images for Jameson)
  • LONDON, ENGLAND - MARCH 27:   Colin Firth and Gary Oldman pose with their Best Actor and Empire Icon awards in the press room at the Jameson Empire Awards 2011 held at Grosvenor House on March 27, 2011 in London, England.  (Photo by Dave Hogan/Getty Images)
    Jameson Empire Awards - Press Room
    LONDON, ENGLAND - MARCH 27: Colin Firth and Gary Oldman pose with their Best Actor and Empire Icon awards in the press room at the Jameson Empire Awards 2011 held at Grosvenor House on March 27, 2011 in London, England. (Photo by Dave Hogan/Getty Images)
  • LONDON, ENGLAND - MARCH 27:   Colin Firth and Gary Oldman pose with their Best Actor and Empire Icon awards in the press room at the Jameson Empire Awards 2011 held at Grosvenor House on March 27, 2011 in London, England.  (Photo by Dave Hogan/Getty Images)
    Jameson Empire Awards - Press Room
    LONDON, ENGLAND - MARCH 27: Colin Firth and Gary Oldman pose with their Best Actor and Empire Icon awards in the press room at the Jameson Empire Awards 2011 held at Grosvenor House on March 27, 2011 in London, England. (Photo by Dave Hogan/Getty Images)
  • LONDON, ENGLAND - MARCH 27:  In this handout image supplied by Jameson, actor Colin Firth with his Best Actor Award presented by Jameson Irish Whiskey on stage during the Jameson Empire Awards at the Grosvenor House Hotel on March 27, 2011 in London, England.  (Photo by Jameson via Getty Images)
    Jameson Empire Awards - Show
    LONDON, ENGLAND - MARCH 27: In this handout image supplied by Jameson, actor Colin Firth with his Best Actor Award presented by Jameson Irish Whiskey on stage during the Jameson Empire Awards at the Grosvenor House Hotel on March 27, 2011 in London, England. (Photo by Jameson via Getty Images)
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