Bridget's troubled waters

Bridget Jones is one of those fictional characters who has taken on a life of her own—like Don Quixote, say, or God. Well, perhaps quite not in that league, but the single, thirtysomething Londoner seems to have become a reference point for women all over the world, not just those struggling with romance but all those battling their weight, their addiction to cigarettes and their dependence on Chardonnay.

Bridget first came to life in a column Helen Fielding wrote for the London Independent. In the manner of Adrian Mole’s Diary, which also began as a newspaper column before developing into a series of books, Bridget told her story in the form of a journal, recording not only the events of her life and her daily (or hourly) thoughts, fears and dreams, but her consumption of nicotine, alcohol and calories.
The self-obsessed linkage between such bad habits and success in love—what you might call the ideological burden of the modern First World woman—has seldom been so neatly compressed into a single persona.

Once Fielding’s columns had made the leap into paperback covers, the legend was headed for global fame. Bridget Jones’s Diary, the novel, sat atop the British bestseller lists for six months and has sold four million copies worldwide. With the success of the film in the United Kingdom, it is doubtless destined to sell even more. Fielding has already contributed deathless terms such as “singleton” and “fuckwittage” to the language, as well as helping to give “shag” a new lease on life.

Her singleton status is the main cross Bridget (Renée Zellweger) has to bear. Modernity and feminism haven’t, at least, changed that fact—women like Bridget don’t feel complete without a man. They want love, romance, the whole Mills & Boon package. As the movie opens, Bridget is entering her “32nd year of being single”, though she can’t really have experienced that as a trauma for more than, say, a decade. After a rather unsatisfactory Christmastime celebration at her parents’, where she meets the stuck-up barrister Mark Darcy (Colin Firth), she starts a diary, determined to curb her vices and find “a nice, sensible man”.

Her first act of the new year, however, is to get involved with her boss, the well-surnamed Daniel Cleaver (Hugh Grant), who is sexy, charming and deeply caddish. Soon Bridget will find herself yanked between sly Daniel and the rather more enigmatic (or is that impossibly stuffy?) Darcy. The complications that arise from this tangle—plus the implosion of Bridget’s parents’ comfortable domestic life—are highly entertaining, making Bridget Jones’s Diary one of the most enjoyable comedies of recent memory.

Zellweger makes a meal, so to speak, of Bridget. Among members of the Fielding fan base, doubts were expressed about the Texan actor’s suitability—what about that Home Counties accent? As it happens, Zellweger achieves it with aplomb, catching precisely that slightly pretentious upper-middle-class British enunciation.

You know, people who say “syooper” instead of “super”, when “super” is bad enough in the first place.

That may not have been too hard, because that accent is a bit of a contrivance anyway. No one speaks that way naturally. But Zellweger also went the Raging Bull route of method acting, putting on about 8kg to be able to play the part of the weight-conscious Bridget more convincingly. She would not be Bridget without the cellulite. On that front, too, Zellweger triumphs.

But the real triumph is her comic skill, already shown to lovable advantage in Neil LaBute’s Nurse Betty—along with her ability to telegraph emotions underlying the humour. Bridget bumbles her way through a hilariously excruciating book launch (she is working in a publishing house at the start of the movie), with cameos from Salman Rushdie and Jeffrey Archer as themselves; she finds herself in an awkward situation at a fancy-dress party; she has a very funny love scene with Grant. Those are some of the broader moments, but Zellweger is just as good at the wit.

She is dependent, of course, on the script and the direction, and both are in safe hands—the script got a final draft from Richard Curtis of Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill fame, and the direction is by Sharon Maguire, apparently a real-life model for one of Bridget’s girlfriends. Maguire has said she understood Bridget’s world so well “because it is mine”. Certainly, she barely puts a foot wrong.

The very picture of self-regarding suavity, and suspiciously good at playing the cad, Grant is spot on as Daniel—so much so that the contest between Daniel and Darcy for Bridget’s affections seems a little lopsided. But then Darcy is being played by Colin Firth, and he has practice playing Darcies, having made female British hearts (including those of the women in the book of Bridget Jones’s Diary) beat faster as Jane Austen’s Mr Darcy in the television adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. This is nice and ironic and post-modern, especially since Fielding is making a good stab at being the Jane Austen of her day.

It all adds up to a lot of fun, as Bridget works through her own entanglements and embarrassments while dealing with the complications that have suddenly erupted in her parents’ lives. The ending of the movie, though, seemed a little too close to the Hollywood pattern of serial disappointments and reliefs—too much alternation of will he?/won’t he? and reunion/separation/reunion. The farcical potential of the novel’s ending, which would have wrapped it all up with a bang, has been missed. Still, nothing a bottle of Chardonnay wouldn’t erase.

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week. Read more from Shaun de Waal

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