Bridget Jones's Diary (2001)

D: Sharon Maguire
S: Renée Zellweger, Colin Firth, Hugh Grant

The eagerly-awaited adaptation of Helen Fielding's best-selling novel is harmless fun. It is extremely derivative though, with bits and pieces of plot seen dozens of times before in books, films, and TV series. Uninitiates may find it a tad strange that there has been so much fuss about it, but they should enjoy themselves, so why worry?

The basic story follows the life of one Bridget Jones, a slightly overweight thirtyish British girl (Renée Zellweger) with a routine of office drudgery, family ties, and romantic non-events which takes her from family party to family party with nary a memorable night to her name. Spurred by the latest in a series of embarrassing social disasters, she decides to try to take control of her life by keeping a diary with clearly defined goals to aspire to, such as quitting cigarettes, losing weight, and finding inner peace. Her quest is complicated by the attentions of her handsome but amoral boss (Hugh Grant) who has suddenly noticed her thanks to a semi-transparent blouse and short skirt worn to work. Is he a knight in shining armour or the devil in disguise? Meanwhile there's the grumpy divorcee her family have tried to fix her up with (Colin Firth), who seems most disagreeable but has this certain air about him which might suggest hidden depths. Bridget negotiates her way though her change of direction through these primal masculine forces, all the while trying to get in touch with herself as a modern, independent woman in contemporary Britain.

Original? No. Fun? Yes. Bridget Jones's Diary is a fresh, pacy movie which is deftly handled by director Sharon Maguire from a script by Richard Curtis, Andrew Davies, and Fielding herself). Knowing that its story will not set the world alight, Maguire gets to the action as quickly as possible with lots of comic business and situations in which these familiar character types get to work. There are some unusual moments scattered throughout (such as the 'clergy and tarts' costume party which goes horribly wrong), and the director relishes the opportunity to leap from set piece to set piece while the plot merrily trundles away towards its predetermined and predictable finale almost on autopilot. She has great fun setting up the claustrophobic world in which Bridget lives, and relishes the character's heartfelt if clumsy attempts to break free of it.

The cast seem very much at ease with the surroundings, even, incredibly, American-born Zellweger. Perverse a notion as it is, and one which smacks of marketing, this actor is believable in a part so steeped in British culture that when her casting was announced, fans virtually took to the streets in protest. Despite some initial discomfort, which really has more to do with knowing beforehand who she is and what she's done before (Empire Records, The Bachelor, Me, Myself & Irene), one soon succumbs to her vulnerable likability in the role. The rest of the movie flows nicely from there. She is backed by a solid cast of Brits including Firth (Shakespeare in Love), Grant (Notting Hill), Jim Broadbent, and Gemma Jones. There are even appearances by Honor Blackman, Salman Rushdie, and Jeffrey Archer! Everyone seems to be having a good time with their parts, and though there isn't a lot of dramatic weight, Broadbent has some effective moments as Bridget's lonely dad, who has just been abandoned by his wife for the gaudy host of a pathetic home shopping channel show. Maguire seems to have instilled the production with just the right tone, as there is not a false note anywhere on the lightly comic/farcical level at which the film operates.

The most interesting aspect of the story is the attempt to make its central character particularly ordinary. This has been done before of course, but with the emphasis on Bridget's relative slovenliness and her slight corpulence, some interesting questions are asked about the image of women in romantic film and/or literature. Zellweger's deliberate weight gain for the part was well publicised in advance, giving hope to average women who might see her one presumes. Yet the same newspapers which told us this would carry information about her restoration of her original weight within weeks of the end the shoot about two paragraphs later. This raises even more interesting questions. One wonders where the line is drawn between an attempt to draw an empathetic response from 'the ordinary woman' and a cynical ploy to exploit them. Given the generic plot and structure of the story, you might be forgiven for raising an arched eyebrow at the entire venture, especially given its huge success both on film and on paper.

But it is hard to dislike Bridget Jones's Diary as a movie in its own right and most audiences will simply have a good time with it. It is well crafted, well performed, and has an infectious sense of its own derivativeness. There are one or two lovely little moments and nice details scattered throughout, it does at least make an attempt to allow its star to appear dowdy from time to time, and it doesn't try to 'translate' the setting for an American audience like High Fidelity. It is certainly worth a look, especially for couples: light, frothy fun which mercifully never takes itself as seriously as many of its forebears.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2001.