Friday April 13, 2001
"It's only a diary," Renee Zellweger's Bridget Jones innocently whines about the red-covered volume she confides her secrets to, but who in the world does she expect to believe her?
Starting as a London newspaper column by Helen Fielding and morphing into a novel and a sequel that have together sold 5 million copies and counting in 32 countries, "Bridget Jones's Diary" and its candid and witty tales of a thirtysomething's romantic woes became such a phenomenon that the London Evening Standard grandly announced that its protagonist "is no mere fictional character, she is the Spirit of the Age."
So when it came to turning this bona fide cultural sensation into a film, a lot of significant players were part of the mix. Top British actors Hugh Grant and Colin Firth (both of whom are mentioned in the book) are Zellweger's male co-stars, and two of that country's cleverest screenwriters, "Four Weddings and a Funeral" and "Notting Hill's" Richard Curtis and "Pride and Prejudice" adapter Andrew Davies worked with Fielding on the script. Four heavyweight companies from three countries (Miramax, Universal, Studio Canal and Working Title) flash their logos on the screen before we even get a glimpse of an actor.
Instead of being suffocated under all this attention or suffering overly much from the liberties the film admittedly takes with her diary, Ms. Jones prospers. The dramatic feature debut for filmmaker Sharon Maguire (a documentary director and apparently the inspiration for Bridget's friend Shazzer), "Bridget Jones's Diary" is cheerful, cheeky entertainment, a clever confection that makes jokes about Salman Rushdie and literary critic F.R. Leavis and survives its excesses by smartly mixing knock-about farce with fairy-tale romance.
It could do none of this without a performer who is definitely not a Brit, the Texas-born Zellweger. An unlikely choice for the part (she had to learn what turns out to be a serviceable British accent from scratch and add a by-now-celebrated 20 pounds to play the pudgy Jones), the actress turns out to be the kind of ideal match that producers fantasize about.
Still best known for her co-starring work with Tom Cruise in "Jerry Maguire," Zellweger's strongest suit is her vulnerability, the empathy she unerringly creates by having her feelings play nakedly on her face. Taking on a character identified with and embraced by so many, the actress is very much who she is supposed to be on screen.
Given that "Bridget Jones" is largely a comedy of embarrassment, it's critical that Zellweger is both a hugely game performer, willing to look bad in intentionally unflattering costumes, as well as someone with a gift for being a plucky wreck. To watch her alone in her apartment, drunkenly singing along with Jamie O'Neal on "All By Myself," is to know everything worth knowing all at once.
Bridget may be her own worst enemy, a woman with a gift for self-sabotage who drinks too much, smiles too hard and puts her foot wrong at every opportunity, but she soldiers her way through with zest and spirit. Maybe she is "ever so slightly less elegant under pressure" than Grace Kelly, but her resilient good-heartedness never deserts her for long.
It is this essence of the character, rather than literary fidelity, that "Bridget Jones" is successfully focused on. Key central elements from the book do remain, but many things, critical details from the kind of sweater worn in a key scene to the kind of man Bridget's mother is attracted to, are changed. The screenwriters have both pared down the book and pumped up selected elements, like the rivalry between the two men in Bridget's life. They've also strengthened the book's charming parallels to "Pride and Prejudice," down to having Firth, who played Mr. Darcy in the BBC version of the Jane Austen novel, expertly play the modern Mark Darcy here.
Introduced in "my 32nd year of being single," publishing house publicity assistant Jones has a tart tongue and a vivid imagination. Locked in a perpetual battle with her weight, disgusted with "smug marrieds" and their know-it-all satisfaction, terrified of dying fat and alone only to be eaten by huge dogs, she begins a diary to both keep a record of and get a handle on her life.
One of Bridget's first resolutions, however, turns out to be a tough one: "Will find nice, sensible boyfriend to go out with and won't continue to form romantic attachments to any of the following: alcoholics, workaholics, commitmentphobics, peeping toms, megalomaniacs" and so on into the night.
Human rights barrister Mark Darcy doesn't fall easily into the Mr. Right category. His dark good looks are hampered by an awful sweater provided by his parents and he's the favorite of her parents (the very funny Gemma Jones and Jim Broadbent), who are soon to have romantic problems of their own. Plus he's undeniably haughty and he's got an attractive and very lean legal partner (the reliable Embeth Davidtz) who wants to extend the relationship into other areas.
Bridget, if she is honest (and she is nothing but) knows she's much more attracted to her boss, Daniel Cleaver, "a bona fide sex god" who is also so much the office scoundrel he practically has a Mr. Wrong sign pasted on his back. Does this stop Bridget? Obviously not.
As the irresistible Mr. Cleaver, Hugh Grant (who is skewered in the book for his Sunset Boulevard assignation) presents one of his best, most satisfying performances. Giving in to his dark side, he gets to play the worst possible version of the kinds of enticing men he's been previously cast as. With Grant in the part, there's never any doubt why Bridget finds it so difficult to disregard her better judgment and stay away.
Finally, however, it is Zellweger as Jones who almost wills this film to succeed. There are flat patches, some situations verge on being overdone, you can see the plot twists coming, but with this spirited a performance in the title role, it's hard to protest too much. Bridget Jones' search for inner poise may be doomed, but her film is anything but.
Bridget Jones's Diary, 2001. R, for language and some strong sexuality. Universal Pictures/Studio Canal/Miramax Films present a Working Title production, released Miramax Films. Director Sharon Maguire. Producers Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Jonathan Cavendish. Executive producer Helen Fielding. Screenplay Helen Fielding, Andrew Davies, Richard Curtis, based on the novel by Helen Fielding. Cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh. Editor Martin Walsh. Costumes Rachael Fleming. Music Patrick Doyle. Production design Gemma Jackson. Supervising art director David Warren. Set decorator Shirley Lixenberg. Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes. Renee Zellweger as Bridget Jones. Colin Firth as Mark Darcy. Hugh Grant as Daniel Cleaver. Jim Broadbent as Bridget's Dad. Gemma Jones as Bridget's Mum.