When it’s on: Saturday, 17 January (9.20 pm)
Helen Fielding’s novel, Bridget Jones’s Diary, was published in 1996 and waited a further five years for its film adaptation to be released. It wasn’t, as I recall, an instant bestseller, but rather one of those slow burning successes that steadily found its way onto bookshelves via word of mouth reviews, nor was the book an easy choice for the big screen with its diary structure suggesting it was virtually unfilmable.
But eventually, the film arrived, inevitably it arrived really, given the snowball effect created by the novel. Taking few chances, it was released by Miramax, co-opting the services of the US-British Working title Films, which had scored major hits with the likes of Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill, and easing in the involvement of Richard Curtis on writing duties and Hugh Grant as one of its stars. Curtis co-wrote the script with Fielding and Andrew Davies, who had adapted Pride and Prejudice for the BBC and was an apt choice considering Bridget Jones’s Diary is, in many ways, a modern retelling of the Jane Austen classic. In a neat casting decision, the film cast Colin Firth as Mark Darcy, an in-joke that gave him the same role as he had played for the TV series of Pride and Prejudice.
A number of actors were considered for the film’s eponymous heroine before Texan Renee Zellwegger was offered the part. By no means the first American adopting a British accent for a UK film, Zellwegger nevertheless threw herself into the role, infamously putting on twenty pounds to play Bridget and affecting a note-perfect, cut-glass Received Pronunciation dialect.
Ideal casting isn’t the only reason why the film was a big success in 2001. It’s also very funny. Too often, this writer has been subjected to romantic comedies that load sentiment where the laughs ought to be, but Bridget Jones’s Diary has more than its fair share of comedic gold. In part this is down to the characters, a full complement of great British actors – Jim Broadbent as Bridget’s befuddled father, her wayward mum played by Gemma Jones, James Callis making his cinema debut as one of her best friends, alongside Shirley Henderson and foul-mouthed Sally Phillips – adding class. Grant subverts his screen image as a bumbling, stammering toff to play the film’s sleazy boyfriend and steals every scene he’s in. As the aloof, straighter edged love interest, Firth has the tougher sell but gets a great scene when he takes on Grant in a street brawl. And then there’s Zellwegger, a big open-hearted presence at the heart of the film, both adorable and identifiable as the woman who’s essentially looking for love and finds the route to it holds many pitfalls.
Also, there are many funny scenes to enjoy. Bridget works for a publishing company and is asked to introduce the boss at a prestigious book launch, duly making a hash of it. She tries her hand at presenting the news and finds herself being filmed sliding down a fire station pole, filmed from below as her arse moves quickly into close-up. She agrees to go to a tarts and vicars party, only to find that she’s one of the few people not to be informed the guests are going in formal dress instead.
Being a joint-Anglo-American production, Bridget Jones’s Diary of course takes place in that resolutely Home Counties setting that resonates with so few Britons, but seems to be the vision of this country designed for Americans. Bridget’s home town is a picture box vision of village England. She appears to have no trouble working and living in Central London without a second thought about how to make ends meet. The characters are all resolutely middle class with few real world troubles to get in the way of the romantic plot. The post-funeral scene in Four Weddings and a Funeral took place in a working class area and seemed jarring, a glimpse of actual Britain amidst the confetti, but there are no moments like that here.
That sense of confection aside, it’s a winner of a film. Genuinely funny and containing real heart, it’s a lot better than it has any right to be, and stands as a rare instance of a film adaptation that eclipses the novel upon which it is based.
Bridget Jones’s Diary: ***