Colin Firth is the heavy favorite to win the best-actor Oscar for his unglamorous performance as stuttering British monarch George VI in “The King’s Speech.”
It’s an atypical role for Firth, who for much of his career has been pigeonholed by his matinee-idol looks. With a face suitable for a medallion and Byronic hair, Firth certainly looks the part of a great English actor. Until recently, though, he’s been an underachiever.
The turnaround started in 2009 with his Oscar-nominated turn as a gay professor grieving over the death of his lover in “A Single Man.” Firth played the character with exquisite integrity, notably in a scene where he restrains his rage over being excluded from his partner’s funeral.
Other roles haven’t been so successful.
Firth, 50, may have been the spitting image of Mr. Darcy in the 1995 television adaptation of “Pride & Prejudice,” but his performance in that iconic role doesn’t measure up to Laurence Olivier’s in the 1940 movie version or even Matthew Macfadyen’s in the 2005 adaptation. (Asked to name the most important women in his life by a French magazine, Firth replied, “My mother, my wife and Jane Austen.”)
For an actor of his standing, Firth has appeared in remarkably few memorable movies, especially in lead roles.
He made an impressive breakthrough in 1984 co-starring with Rupert Everett in “Another Country,” adapted from a play he had previously performed on the London stage about the early days of British spies Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean.
He was effective as a battle-scarred World War I veteran in a remote Yorkshire village in “A Month in the Country” (1987). In the ultra-creepy “Apartment Zero” (1989), he played with manic precision a British film buff beleaguered by his Buenos Aires roommate.
He shared a frisky bathtub scene with Annette Bening in “Valmont” (1989), a softer version of the same material that was the basis for Stephen Frears’s “Dangerous Liasions” the previous year.
With the exception of “The English Patient” (1996) and “Shakespeare in Love” (1998), both of which featured him in supporting roles of modest distinction, the bulk of Firth’s subsequent work was for British television. This included “The Deep Blue Sea” (1994), an adaptation of the Terence Rattigan play about an affair between a former military pilot and an older woman, and “Nostromo” (1997), a mini-series based on the Joseph Conrad novel.
Firth also became a regular in ensemble comedies like “Love Actually” (2003), Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest” (2002) and the two “Bridget Jones” movies, where he plays a boyfriend named --- ahem -- Mark Darcy.
I was about to give up on Firth right about the time he warbled Abba tunes on a Greek isle in “Mamma Mia!” (2008). Then he broke through his smooth facade in “A Single Man,” portraying an emotionally drowning man who uses good manners as a life raft.
In “The King’s Speech,” where George VI overcomes his speech impediment with the help of an eccentric therapist played by Geoffrey Rush, it would have been easy for Firth portray the king as a regular guy underneath all the royal pomp. But Firth never once winks at the audience or sentimentalizes the monarch’s misery.
It’s a royal performance worthy of an Oscar.
(Peter Rainer is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own).