Before Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001) was released in theaters, much was made of the casting of soft-spoken American (from Texas no less!), Renee Zellweger as the very British Bridget Jones. It was seen as almost heresy by fans of Helen Fielding’s very popular book of the same name. It was a pretty ballsy move on the part of producers Eric Fellner and Tim Bevan of Working Title Films, the British production company responsible for revitalizing (or destroying depending on your point-of-view) the romantic comedy with the massively successful one-two punch of Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994) and Notting Hill (1999).
Bridget Jones would be their most ambitious entry into the genre to date, adapting a wildly popular best-seller and attempting to quell the controversy of casting Zellweger by having her appear alongside Fellner and Bevan’s cinematic good luck charm, Hugh Grant (who had starred in both Four Weddings and Notting Hill) and Colin Firth, best known (at the time) for his role as Mr. Darcy on the British television miniseries adaptation of Pride and Prejudice (1995). To almost everyone’s surprise, Zellweger pulled it off with a credible British accent and a real commitment to the role (she even put on the weight required to play the character). Working Title scored another box office hit and continued their impressive reign as rom-com champs.
Bridget Jones (Renee Zellweger) is a sworn bachelorette. She has her family and friends but despite her defiantly single stance the biological clock is always ticking. She finds herself looking for Mr. Right. She does fancy her roguish boss, Daniel Cleaver (Hugh Grant), but also finds herself strangely drawn to the repressed and distant Mark Darcy (Colin Firth). The film follows Bridget as she must decide who she loves more while also getting her life in order.
Bridget is not some ultra-thin model (or “American stick insect” as she calls the glamorous New York City career girl that Daniel cheats on her with) type but a full-bodied woman who sometimes acts awkward in social situations, including showing up to a party dressed like some kind of Playboy bunny. Bridget is instantly relatable and immediately gets our sympathy. We care about what happens to her and become emotionally invested in her and her world.
Renee Zellweger is willing to put herself out there, successfully embodying this British phenomenon. She is also willing to look silly and poke fun at herself. However, the way she is lit and the warm colors that surround her, highlight Zellweger’s luminescent, beautiful pink skin. Director Sharon Maguire champions her voluptuous physique and doesn’t hide how she looks. There are lingering shots of Bridget getting dressed, which is refreshing in this day and age. Zellweger is Bridget Jones and looking back at the film after all this time, one would be hard pressed to think of anyone else in the role.
After being type cast as the meek nice guy in films like Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill, Hugh Grant is cast refreshingly against type as a raunchy cad. It gives the actor a chance to poke fun at his own image and it gave his career a much-needed shot in the arm, allowing him to branch out and play more flawed characters, like his wonderful turn in About a Boy (2002).
At the time, Colin Firth was period piece guy. He shot to success as the thinking women’s sex symbol in A&E’s production of Pride and Prejudice and Bridget Jones firmly established him on the contemporary pop culture map. At first, Mark seems like a stuck up, cold fish but over the course of the film his true feelings for Bridget become apparent. Firth has an uncanny ability of conveying repressed, unrequited feelings. It’s all in his eyes, which are very expressive.
The film’s screenplay, co-written by Fielding, Andrew Davies (Pride and Prejudice), and the always reliable Richard Curtis, offers all kinds of astute observations about single life and the pressure society and the media puts on us to find a mate and get married (“It is a truth universally acknowledged that when one part of your life starts going okay, another falls spectacularly to pieces.”). Not to mention, the film is insanely quotable with many, many memorable bits of dialogue (“My mum, a strange creature from the time when pickles on toothpicks were still the height of sophistication.”).
Bridget Jones’s Diary started as a satirical column by Helen Fielding in London’s The Independent newspaper in 1995, which was then compiled into a novel that was published in 1996. However, it wasn’t until word of mouth and the paperback edition being published the next year that sales really took off. It went on to sell four million copies worldwide, 1.5 million in the U.K. alone. Before sales went through the roof, Working Title Films quickly bought the film rights.
Producers Eric Fellner and Tim Bevan asked screenwriter Richard Curtis of Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill fame to work with Fielding (whom he was also good friends with) on adapting her book. Documentary filmmaker Sharon Maguire, a friend of Fielding’s and the inspiration for Bridget’s best friend Shazza, was hired to direct and connected with the material instantly. “I know this world because it’s mine. I understand first-hand who Bridget is and what it’s like to be in your 30s, successful in your career, and yet wondering why you’re still alone.”
Producers Eric Fellner and Tim Bevan spent two years looking for the right actress to play Bridget Jones and considered the likes of Emily Watson, Kate Winslet and Helena Bonham Carter before deciding on Renee Zellweger, impressed by her comedic abilities. In March 2000, she went to London where the actress lived for two months, working with dialogue expert Barbara Berkery who had previously worked with Gwyneth Paltrow on Sliding Doors (1998) and Shakespeare in Love (1998). Zellweger underwent daily dialogue exercises and spent a lot of time with Berkery going out shopping and sightseeing in London. She said in an interview, “I’m trying to familiarize myself with the culture. I feel a very strong responsibility to make sure she’s as truly British as I can make her.”
In addition, the actress worked at a publishing company (much like her character) and gained weight, putting on 20 lbs. for the role. To gain the weight, she was put on a regime of three meals a day, multiple snacks and no exercise. By the time of the film’s release, the actress had clearly tired of all the talk about her weight gain for the role: “It’s so sad when people focus on being fat because that is not the word I would use at all. I felt voluptuous for the first time in my life.”
Bridget Jones’s Diary received mostly positive reviews from critics with Zellweger often singled out for her performance. Roger Ebert gave the film three-and-a-half out of four stars and praised Zellweger for being, “fully herself and fully Bridget Jones, both at once. A story like this can't work unless we feel unconditional affection for the heroine, and casting Zellweger achieves that.” In his review for The New York Times, Stephen Holden wrote, “Don't expect Bridget Jones's Diary to deliver any searing revelations about the human condition. Even as a do's and don'ts resource about the dating life, the wisdom it dispenses is questionable. What it is is a delicious piece of candy whose amusing package is scrawled with bons mots distantly inspired by Jane Austen.” USA Today gave the film three out of four stars and Susan Wloszczyna also praised Zellweger: “But where the highly likable actress proves most valuable is in making us adore this insecure, clumsy, contradictory creature. She has us at hello, or at least from the opening credits, where she strikes a perfect picture of self-pity.” In his review for The New York Observer, Andrew Sarris felt that the film wasn’t as good as the book but singled out Zellweger: “Ms. Zellweger makes the most of what she’s given and manages to triumph time and again over her pratfalls and public rump displays. In a word, she’s terrific.” The Washington Post’s Stephen Hunter wrote, “Grant is casually fabulous and very amusing, but all power to Firth the actor. He's the compleat Darcy, and he never wavers. There's no sentimentality, no flirtation with the audience, no final moment of pandering to the niceness gods; he's a cold geek all the way through.”
Entertainment Weekly gave the film a “B” rating and Lisa Schwarzbaum wrote, “Hugh Grant is charming too, luxuriating in naughtiness, taking a holiday from his usual floppy, velvet romantic image as Bridget's caddish boss, Daniel Cleaver, with whom the employee embarks on a bound for disaster affair.” In his review for the Los Angeles Times, Kenneth Turan wrote, “There are flat patches, some situations verge on being overdone, you can see the plot twists coming, but with this spirited a performance in the title role, it's hard to protest too much. Bridget Jones' search for inner poise may be doomed, but her film is anything but.” However, in her review for the Village Voice, Amy Taubin wrote, “The film, like the novel, shies away from the uncomfortable truth that both Mr. Wrong and Mr. Right are attracted to Bridget not only for her cushiony body, but because her empty-headedness makes her seem vulnerable and unthreatening. Bridget gets her man, but you should think twice about whether that constitutes a happy ending.” The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw wrote, “So Bridget has to be reimagined as a lovable, infantile clown – but once this leap has been made, Renée Zellweger's impersonation of Bridget is entertaining. She has an excellent English accent, the best since Gwyneth Paltrow's Emma. And her Jake La Motta-ish weight-gain is a thing of joy.”
With the commercial and critical success of Bridget Jones’s Diary, a sequel was inevitable. Fielding had written a follow-up but the problem became how to replicate the magic of the first film and yet make it different enough not to be just a retread of what came before? Everyone’s favorite curvy, clumsy British journalist returned in The Edge of Reason (2004).
Bridget and Mark are still a couple in a happy relationship. However, as she writes in her diary, “What happens after you walk off into the sunset?” It is this nagging question that will cloud her judgment. Daniel Cleaver is now a T.V. personality and as rudely funny as ever. On his show he describes the Sistine Chapel as the “First example in history of poof interior designer gone bonkers.” Trouble arises when working class Bridget feels out of place in Mark’s affluent, upper class world. To make matters worse, she starts to feel pangs of jealousy towards one of Mark’s beautiful co-workers, Rebecca (Jacinda Barrett). Her gorgeous looks and casual familiarity with Mark makes Bridget nervous and jealous. How can she compete with a thinner, smarter, more attractive woman? This leads to issues like marriage and children to raise their ugly heads and cause a rift and ultimately split-up Bridget and Mark.
The big problem with this film becomes apparent early on. In the first film, we were laughing with Bridget. In this one we are now laughing at her. For example, she skydives for her morning T.V. show and lands in a muddy pigpen. The segment ends with a gratuitous shot of her dirty behind. The Edge of Reason also recycles many jokes from the first film. Mark and Daniel get into another knock-down, drag-out fight. The film relies too much on physical humor. Bridget falls off the roof of Mark’s flat. Finally, she falls off a ski lift. See a pattern developing? The film takes a gag and proceeds to beat it into the ground until it isn’t funny anymore.
The chemistry between Zellweger and Firth is still strong. They make a great couple and clearly have a good rapport. Zellweger gamely puts on the pounds again and certainly has a knack for physical and verbal comedy. But the film places too much emphasis on the former and not enough on the latter. However, Hugh Grant is a breath of fresh, smarmy air as the roguish Cleaver. He openly leers at any good-looking woman and casually insults people with his scathing wit. The film only comes to life when he’s on-screen.
Bridget Jones’s Diary is much more than just the quintessential single woman’s survival guide. It is a funny and engaging romantic comedy that champions a more realistic image of women. Bridget Jones is the photo negative of The Sex and the City women. She is not like them, with their perfect shoes and witty repartee. Bridget would be watching that show and not be on it. And this is part of the appeal of the film to the average woman. The Edge of Reason, on the other hand, eventually settles into a comfortable groove, merely a pale imitation of the superior original.