You have to hand it to the Working Title team. Through Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), Notting Hill (1999) and the adaptation of Helen Fielding's best seller Bridget Jones's Diary, they have managed to formulate the one, homegrown recipe that makes British films into world successes.
As happened with the first Crocodile Dundee (1986), there is understandable pride when a non-American film industry manages to dominate the market in this way, even if only for a little while. Working Title has staged a canny takeover of an all-American genre, the romantic comedy, and given it a British flavour – notwithstanding, of course the necessary concession of an American star (such as Julia Roberts) in a prime role.
Renee Zellweger gamely steps into the leading role here. Her mimicry of all things English is flawless, and her comic talents have never been better showcased. She is easily the best thing in this formulaic, hit-and-miss confection.
The Working Title romantic comedies borrow the basic elements of the American model. Once again, a heroine must make the difficult choice between available male types. Darcy (Colin Firth) is the gormless, rigid, unfunny chap who offers Bridget security, while Cleaver (Hugh Grant) is the sexy rake who offers endless surprises and thrills but can never 'commit'. One can trace this template back to either Jane Austen or His Girl Friday (1940).
As in the novel, Bridget embodies all the fashionable dreams, fears and neuroses of the modern, thirtysomething single woman. She worries about her weight; she is uncertain whether to mix business and pleasure; she handles bouts of depression by getting plastered and miming to old records; all in all, she has pretty low self-esteem.
But Bridget, for all her nervousness and clumsiness, is always willing to give life – in the form of a new diet, date, career or self-help book – another shot. Although many of her screen adventures are perfunctory, Zellweger's embodiment of the character is sure to win identification from most audiences.
Director Sharon Maguire and her writers (Fielding, Andrew Davies and Richard Curtis) tweak the American formula in the usual Working Title ways. Bridget must have her pack of faithful friends: loud-mouthed girl, gay guy and mousey girl. There must be many nostalgic snippets of '80s music fads, with the really soulful ballads (either by Van Morrison or Elvis Costello) left for the big, dramatic moments in the rain or out in the street.
There is the usual immersion in supposedly glamorous middle-class professions – publishing, journalism, television, advertising, architecture – and a storyline that allows Bridget to plot an upwardly mobile curve through several of these social worlds. There are the guest stars who come with these milieux, including Salman Rushdie and – after-events in reality providing an unanticipated extra laugh – Jeffrey Archer.
More peculiarly British is the film's emphasis on family relationships, and its eventually touching subplot involving Bridget's mother leaving her father for the sake of a fling with a fey TV host. Throughout, the small behavioural details – such as when Bridget confronts the horror of a dinner party where she is the only single person in a sea of clingy, smarmy couples – work better than the broader, slapstick touches.
Much of the comedy has a sloppy, near-enough-is-good-enough air – with a jolly boating frolic and a live TV broadcast from a fire station hitting rock bottom. Fortunately for Maguire (whose directorial inexperience shows at every turn), the film is able to coast on the charm of its star and supporting cast, with Grant dependably amusing in a part that does not stretch his talent one little bit.
MORE Curtis/Working Title: Wimbledon
© Adrian Martin July 2001