Archive for September, 2011

The Firthday Five: Viewing and Reviewing Colin at his Best

For years–ever since I was a child–I’ve been an avid Colin Firth fan, and over time, my fascination has evolved into an academic investment of sorts,
from the occasional graduate student seminar paper addressing his work in literary adaptation to employing it as a teaching tool in my own courses (God
bless you, Colin, for being almost single-handedly responsible for contributing to renewed student interest in Jane Austen. If literary academia hasn’t
collectively written you a letter of thanks, It’s high time we did).

In a celebratory tribute to the man on his birthday, I thought I’d share a few of my favorite Colin performances. For purposes of practicality, time, and space, I’ve limited the list to five films, mostly because any more than that would make narrowing my choices considerably more challenging. Four out of five of these films are literary adaptations because I think that this branch of film represents some of Colin’s most impressive work. The intuitiveness with which he brings literary characters to life manages to tap into the popular imagination’s image of that character while presenting an authentic interpretation of his own. So: let’s have a look!

1. A Single Man (2009) This adaptation of the Christopher Isherwood novel of the same title features Colin as the middle-aged, British English professor George Falconer as he struggles to cope with life following the tragic death of his partner, Jim. After nearly two years since seeing this movie in theater, Colin’s performance still resonates with me—the way he gives every fiber of his being over to the character of George. In general, the movie strikes at the white hot center of life, snaps your head around and challenges you to stare your own mortality in the face, and Colin captures that so well. He dissolves the boundary between actor and audience and invites us into his personal space. At once shocking and sensitive, heart-warming and heart-wrenching, I’ve only since reluctantly forgiven the Academy for overlooking this performance because they redeemed themselves with “The King’s Speech”.

2. The King’s Speech (2010) I’ve never missed an opportunity to wax rhapsodic about this film; Colin’s portrayal of the stammering monarch George VI is masterful; he maneuvers the mechanics of stammering with amazing authenticity and presents an intimate portrait of Bertie as a man, not a monarch. Needless to say, a very well-deserved Oscar. Kudos to the king.

3. Girl with a Pearl Earring (2003) Yet another of Colin’s appearances in a literary film adaptation and, I think, one of his best. Here he plays Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer in an adaptation of Tracy Chevalier’s historical novel of the same title. Though his character has little screen time, he is allocated a very pervasive presence throughout the film, and Colin capitalizes on every visible moment he does have. His interpretation of Vermeer is precisely how I imagined him when reading the novel; seemingly withdrawn and enigmatic, with a quiet, mesmerizing intensity, he draws his audience into his gaze and into Vermeer’s world—a world of swirling colors and intense passion. We feel, even as he entraps us in this web of color, that we want to be held captive by his gaze, if only for a moment.

4. Bridget Jones’ Diary (2001) This film needs no introduction; in a witty adaptation of Helen Fielding’s novel—itself a modern retelling of Jane Austen’s /Pride and Prejudice/, Colin’s portrayal of Mark Darcy manages to pay tribute both to the Mr. Darcy of Austen’s making that remains one of popular culture’s iconic Byronic heroes and to Fielding’s contemporary recasting of Darcy while reprising his own legendary performance of Mr. Darcy in the BBC/A & E Pride and Prejudice with grace and good humor.

5. The Importance of being Earnest (2002) I first saw this adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s play as an undergraduate in a Victorian Literature course several years ago, and it’s the Firth film I inevitably reach for when my life needs a little comic relief. Alternately witty and ridiculous, Colin’s spot-on performance of Jack Worthing is one of which I think Wilde himself would have been proud—a true tribute to one of the Victorian era’s most celebrated playwrights.

Finally: two bonus picks:
Pride and Prejudice (1995) I didn’t include this in the above list because I think—and Jane Austen and Colin fans alike will likely agree with me—this performance defies categorization. A staple of the Austen film phenomenon, Colin’s Mr. Darcy brings our beloved hero to life in a memorable and, I think, unmatchable performance.

Lastly: The Secret Garden (1987) I’ve included this one purely for sentimental value; Colin appears briefly here as the adult Colin Craven in Hallmark’s television adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic children’s novel, and it was my first encounter with Colin. Short-lived and little-known though this role is, I remember, as an eleven year-old girl, being mesmerized by that face. There wasn’t anything immediately remarkable about it;
so neutral in appearance, so passive in expression, but with a hint of something rippling beneath the surface like a lake stirred by a light wind. That
was what intrigued me; that carefully modulated reserve; that passion kept in check, a characteristic Colinesque trait that fans have come to love and admire over the years.

So, Happy Birthday, Colin Firth; your talent is a gift that many cherish. Thank you for serving as a constant reminder to me, as to many others, that a life without laughter is no life at all.

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D.E.A.R- Drop Everything and read: Celebrating International Literacy

While casually browsing my Twitter feed as part of my morning routine, I was reminded by a friend that yesterday, September 8th, was designated International Literacy day—a day devoted to calling attention to and promoting world literacy and literacy needs. According to Reading.org, “More than 780 million of the world’s adults (nearly two-thirds of whom are women) do not know how to read or write, and between 94 and 115 million children lack access to education.” As a writing and literature teacher, I find myself reflecting as I consider that statistic on how privileged I am in my own literacy and how honored I feel to count myself among those individuals who dedicate themselves to promoting literacy.

I consider myself fortunate to have grown up in a home where, perhaps because both of my parents were and are still teachers, reading always seemed to take precedence over watching television, or even playing out of doors; always a firm believer in the simple idea that growing children need fresh air, if my mother couldn’t force me out of doors to play, she would at least encourage me to sit on the front porch with my book. When people ask me why I chose to pursue a Ph.D. in Victorian Literature, I always share with them an anecdote I’m fond of relating: One day, when I was in the sixth grade, I was kept home from school with stomach flu and sent to Grandma’s house; sick or not, Grandma’s house was paradise; she had cable. Cable meant MTV. Just before dropping me off at Grandma’s on her way to work, Mom informed me sternly that I wasn’t to sit in front of the
TV all day. (Not that I’d planned to, or anything…perish the thought. What kind of twelve year-old did my mother think I was?). What then, I wondered, was I supposed to do? For answer, Mom handed me a cassette player and a stack of tapes rubber-banded together. It was an audiobook of Charlotte Bronte’s /Jane Eyre/. I’m still not entirely sure why or how my mother had this in her possession, but I’m almost certain that she’d been saving it for just such an emergency. Thinking their might be a quiz when she came to pick me up, I decided I’d read it, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Of course, as a visually impaired child, reading naturally held more appeal for me than watching television, playing dodge ball in the street, or riding my bike, not that I hadn’t engaged in such activities. Fond though I was of proving my ability to keep pace with my peers, one can only take so many scraped knees and broken glasses before admitting that there might be some truth to the paraphrased adage “If at first you don’t succeed, try again; then give up. There’s no point being a damn idiot about it.” Admittedly though, I hadn’t always adored reading—hardly surprising when I had to magnify words to such a ridiculously large size that I’m pretty sure Stevie Wonder could have read them from outer space. Needless to say, trying to read so slowly that I’d forgotten what the story was about before I’d gotten to the bottom of page 5 didn’t strike me as a particularly rewarding or entertaining pastime. It was bad enough that I came home from school with migraines that left me physically ill and bleary-eyed for days at a time. If I hadn’t been introduced to the wonder of braille and the magic of audiobooks, I might not have ever given it a chance.

It’s that passion for the world I learned to explore between the pages of books and the freedom to wander through that world on my own and make my own discoveries that I love sharing with my students. When we talk of my love for literature (and sometimes of their own as well, because college students sometimes read more than we instructors give them credit for even if they don’t perhaps gravitate toward the reading we assign them) a student will invariably ask me what my favorite book is. To an English teacher, asking that question is, I think, akin to asking a mother to choose her favorite child. I have so very many: the before-mentioned /Jane Eyre/, because it was the first “grownup” book I read; Jane Austen’s /Pride and Prejudice/, because as an adolescent, I identified with the fear and social degradation of being labeled a wallflower as the only girl no boy approached at school dances; the Ramona Quimbey series, because it kept me company on so many Saturday afternoons. Some books, like the ones above, I value primarily for sentimental reasons, though having taught and written about the Brontes and Austen in my professional endeavors, I’ve come to value them equally for their scholarly worth. Others, like Khaled Hosseini’s /The Kite Runner/, I love because they challenge me to step outside myself and view the world from an entirely different vantage point.

so in a gesture of acknowledgement of the incalculable worth of the written word, what are your favorite books? Can you recall a particular experience that turned you on to reading? Share your thoughts—and then, go celebrate International Literacy day—as Beverly Cleary so aptly puts it in /Ramona Quimbey Age 8/, drop everything and read!

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