Colin Firth is outstanding. So why isn’t he at his best more often? Isabel Lloyd profiled him before the release of "A Single Man", which won him a BAFTA for best actor

From INTELLIGENT LIFE Magazine, Winter 2009

EVERYONE KNOWS WHO Colin Firth is. He’s Mr Darcy. He’ll always be Mr Darcy, despite the gaggle of not-Firths who’ve attempted the part in the 15-odd years since Andrew Davies’s dripping adaptation of “Pride and Prejudice”. Darcy was Firth’s high-water mark. Those rigid sideburns and burning eyes, that vulnerable mouth trapped between the points of a Regency collar, propelled him out of a wet shirt and into the fantasies of a million women, into the kind of fame where your name becomes shorthand for wholesome lust-object. Only recently, Monty Don acknowledged that he was the “Colin Firth of gardening”.

It’s a phenomenon that Firth observes as if he was his own audience. “That thing,” he calls it, “that thing you’re describing is…preposterous. The screen, the high profile, all that has an unnatural effect. Men my age [he’s teetering on the edge of 50] don’t get giggled over by a girl of 21.” Well, no, mostly not. Still, when Firth came into the Intelligent Life office a few months ago, rings of excited female giggling rippled out across the floor. “What”, asked a male colleague afterwards, “was so funny?”

For a man so loved by women, Firth is good at being gay. In 1983, aged 22, he launched his career on stage with Guy Bennett, the flamboyantly out proto-traitor of “Another Country”. He’s been wittily gay in “Relative Values”, secretly gay in “Mamma Mia!”. And in September, he was named best actor at the Venice film festival for his performance in “A Single Man”, Tom Ford’s first detour from fashion into film directing. Adapted from a Christopher Isherwood novella, the film follows a day in the life of George, an English lecturer in early-Sixties California who is grief-stricken by the death of his lover, Jim. It’s the sort of part—intensely emotional, dealing with Issues—that Hollywood laps up, and there are murmurs of an Oscar nomination. Firth himself describes the role as “career Viagra”. But when I ask where that particular dose of medicine might lead, he says, “I can only imagine I will continue as I always have. I don’t see trajectories as being manageable. I don’t see career ladders as dependable.” It’s a strangely downbeat answer.

There have been times before when he seemed about to leap up the ladder, if not shoot straight off into the galaxy: after his Royal Television Society award for the Falklands drama “Tumbledown” in 1988; after being cast as Valmont in Milos Forman’s (sadly outgunned) version of “Les Liaisons Dangereuses” in 1989; after, of course, “Pride and Prejudice”. Yet every time Firth has got a toe on the top rung, he seems to pause and then slide down a passing snake. Did Mr Darcy have to be reduced to Bridget Jones’s self-parodying Mark Darcy? Did the yearning Vermeer of “Girl with a Pearl Earring” have to be followed by the gurning father in “Nanny McPhee”? Compared with his peers from the extended drama-school graduation that was “Another Country”—Kenneth Branagh, Rupert Everett, Daniel Day-Lewis—Firth has spent much of his career apparently on the run from his own talent. Why?