Bridget Jones’s Diary
British male thirtysomethings had Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity as their Bible; British female thirtysomethings had Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary, and now both have been made into excellent movies starring Americans. Whereas the High Fidelity movie successfully transplanted its action from London to Chicago, Bridget sensibly stays in the U.K., the better to profit from the likes of Hugh Grant, coscripter Richard Curtis (a whiz at crafting Brit humor that isn’t too Brit for Yanks — see Four Weddings and a Funeral), and Colin Firth in a BBC-addict in-joke playing a suitor named Mark Darcy (whom Fielding patterned on Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, played in the BBC rendition by … Colin Firth).
Somewhere near the start of any review of the movie, there must be a relieved acknowledgment that Renée Zellweger, a born Texan, not only nails the most beloved woman of modern British fiction but embodies and owns her. This will come as scant surprise to those who followed her in Nurse Betty and came away feeling she could do anything, including but not limited to walking on water, though she’s best when playing lovably befuddled women who find it difficult even to negotiate a hallway without disaster. In my review of High Fidelity, I said you could read the book without imagining John Cusack in the lead, but it was impossible to imagine the movie without him; here I must up the ante and say that it’s now impossible to read the book without picturing Zellweger as Bridget.
The script, credited to Fielding, Curtis, and Andrew Davies (who adapted the current The Tailor of Panama and also, ahem, wrote the abovementioned Pride and Prejudice adaptation), tracks the book’s events fairly closely. Bridget, a 32-year-old “singleton” who works in publishing, is torn between slick bastard Daniel Cleaver (Hugh Grant, having a ball decimating the dithering-nice-guy persona he’s dined out on in America since Four Weddings) and the rather bland-seeming Mark Darcy, who has the grave misfortune of being introduced to Bridget (and us) while dying of embarrassment in a sweater of shattering bad taste. Bridget’s mum (Gemma Jones), meanwhile, has left her kindly but inattentive husband (Jim Broadbent) for a hideous TV huckster with a variety of incrementally fake tans.
So, here’s another romantic comedy in which our heroine learns, both by experience and example, that slick boys are bad and nice boys who like you despite your flaws definitely have their strong points. Readers of Fielding’s book will miss its spiky wit and inextricably British asides (one of my favorites: “Keen on a man who comes round late, in stark contrast to people who come round early, startling and panicking one and finding unsightly items still unhidden in the home”); perhaps nothing short of a filmed audiobook could deliver the style intact. Still, what saved the book from being the whining of a bitter singleton (as opposed to Laura Zigman’s annoying Animal Husbandry with its stupid bull/cow theory of romance, recently adapted as Someone Like You) was Bridget’s helplessly funny, self-deprecating take on her life, and the movie has an equivalent in its star, who lets us feel Bridget’s unhappiness and vulnerability without soliciting our pity.
The first-time director, Sharon Maguire, is a friend of Fielding, who based Bridget’s foulmouthed friend Sharon on her. Maguire does a smooth job of it, though shooting (somewhat unaccountably) in widescreen and hiring Jane Campion’s ace cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh; here and there, the movie gleams when it should just groan and sniffle with a hangover. Maguire does have a way with easygoing slapstick, as when a drunken, forlorn Bridget lip-synchs to “All By Myself” under the opening credits, and the director stages what must be the most hilariously maladroit and drawn-out fistfight since Roddy Piper and Keith David went at it in John Carpenter’s They Live. But mostly her achievement is to stay out of Renée Zellweger’s way and let her be Bridget.
Fielding published a ‘Bridget Jones’ sequel (in which, ironically, Colin Firth appears as himself), and there are sure to be more; if Zellweger’s ‘Nurse Betty’ costar Morgan Freeman warrants a franchise (see ‘Along Came a Spider’), then this enchanting actress, brimming with heart and soul, surely deserves her own series too.