I did not expect to get teary-eyed in a press showing of Bridget Jones’s Baby this week, but so help me, there I was, blubbering away as Renée Zellweger’s Bridget, nine months pregnant, got carried wheelbarrow-style by two men through a revolving hospital door.
In the new installment, directed by Sharon Maguire of the original Bridget Jones’s Diary, 43-year-old Bridget (“the last barren husk in London,” as she puts it) finds herself pregnant after one-night-stands with charismatic American dating guru Jack Quant (Patrick Dempsey) and former true-love Mark Darcy (Firth), from whom she’s separated. (Hugh Grant’s Daniel Cleaver has been conveniently disposed of, as has much of the plot of Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason.) Bridget chooses not to get amniocentesis to find out which man is the father and strings them along for the entire pregnancy, Maury-style, falling for both in the process.
It’s been a long time since I saw a really successful rom-com, one whose heroine feels nuanced and three-dimensional, whose struggles feel genuine, and one whose humor is part of the film’s DNA instead of mere padding. Renée Zellweger is fantastic, and easily reestablishes herself as one of our foremost big-screen comic actors, while Patrick Dempsey’s all-American charisma is almost enough to fill the void left by the missing Hugh Grant. But, surprisingly, it’s Colin Firth who tugged my heartstrings the most.
Of course, we have all seen Colin Firth pull this shtick many times before. Beginning with his turn as the original Mr. Darcy in 1995’s Pride and Prejudice, whose wet-shirted antics established him as the ultimate bookish-girl heartthrob, the history of recent romantic cinema is, in no small part, a history of Colin Firth falling in love onscreen. This scenario always looks pretty much the same, from Love Actually to Mamma Mia to Magic in the Moonlight: Repressed man meets vivacious woman; repressed man turns out to be desperately romantic beneath pained exterior; vivacious woman brings repressed man out of his shell. In the first Bridget Jones film (I’m going to largely ignore the second film), much of the comedy comes from juxtaposing the freewheeling, openhearted Bridget with the uptight, shut-off Mark. By the end, Mark opens his heart and we believe that they can make it work, that Mark’s brittle exterior has been thawed by his love for her.
In Bridget Jones’s Baby, we learn that their relationship didn’t work out, and those things that seemed like red flags early on turned out to be lasting issues. We see, in flashback, a brief anatomy of their failed relationship: Mark was always working. He couldn’t commit. He was never there. He couldn’t make her happy, as much as he may have wanted to. Now, middle-aged and in the middle of a divorce with another woman, representing a Pussy Riot–esque Eastern European girl group in a free-speech lawsuit (of course), Mark’s inability to communicate seems less like a quirky affectation and more like a tragic flaw.
The film successfully targets our nostalgia centers, both for every iteration of Firth-as-lover past, and for the young versions of Mark and Bridget, whom we’ve been rooting for since 2001. In one affecting scene, Mark fondles the ugly Christmas sweater that launched their courtship, and we see a string of flashbacks to the first movie, both Colin-Mark and Renée-Bridget looking young and hopeful as they embark on their bumbling three-movie romance. Much fuss has been made of the fact that Renée Zellweger looks different in the new film (and indeed, poor Owen Gleiberman was so personally aggrieved he wrote a whole essay about it).
But while Bridget feels essentially like the same person, if a little older and wiser, Mark’s evolution as a character is more striking. We’re used to men getting to continue to play viable romantic heroes as they get older, even as their female counterparts get relegated to dowdy-mom roles. Yet Bridget Jones’s Baby, the rare film that has three equally middle-aged leads, offers an interesting opportunity to reflect on the trajectory of a male romantic lead. In the first film, Mark’s distinctly English brand of emotional aloofness managed to seem charming and dashing, like a mystery to unwrap. Here, however, in middle age, there’s something both touching and a little sad in his very stuckness. It’s similar to how I feel about Hugh Grant as a romantic lead; whereas his charming-cad routine used to be an instant turn-on, now it just feels kind of depressing, like he should have left the party years ago. (To his credit, he hasn’t done many rom-coms lately; his most recent outing, The Rewrite, is appropriately meta about all this.)
Progressive talking points aside, in many ways, Bridget Jones’s Baby is a very old-fashioned film; it’s a story about choosing to return to an old love, with all its old problems, instead of heading off in a new direction with a “shiny new American,” to quote Bridget (of course, for all the discussion of single motherhood, ending up alone is never really presented as a viable option). And while we can’t help root for Bridget to end up with Mark — a love as familiar as an old Christmas sweater — it’s not with the same gung-ho enthusiasm we’d had back in 2001. We’re all a little bit older and wiser now. Sure, we believe that Mark truly cares for Bridget, even if he can’t always show it. We also know that love isn’t always enough; that Mark, like so many men before him, might continue to be a disappointing partner, even with the very best of intentions.
I can’t say enough about Colin Firth’s facial expressions in his film. He has the amazing ability to communicate immense joy and great sorrow with a single glance, even as his expression barely changes, as if he’s trying to lock his feelings away behind a pained grimace and furrowed brow. In one scene, Bridget reveals that she is pregnant with his baby (maybe), and he has to excuse himself from the room, presumably to panic in private. Then he returns, and says stoically, yet with a hint of mist in his eyes, something like: “I think that’s the most wonderful thing I’ve ever heard in my life.” We believe it. And later, when Bridget tells him the baby might not be his, the full breadth of his devastation is evident in one crestfallen glance, before he flees from the table, unable to bear it.
Unlike the lovelorn, jilted women who tend to populate rom-coms, Bridget is the one in control here: She is the one fending off her suitors for the bulk of the film. Mark is clearly still fixated on her, but she’s trying to move forward, to build a new life for herself, with a successful career and a new group of friends (and a snazzy new tablet diary to boot). Bridget is a ray of optimism, and you sense she’d always bounce back, and that — most important — she’d be fine on her own, that she has a full life without a boyfriend or husband.
But even though Bridget Jones’s Baby ends happily (and of course it does), I can’t help worrying about poor Mark Darcy, a man tucked away inside himself, who simply can’t express all the things he feels inside. Who does Mark talk to when the going gets tough? His law friends? The Pussy Riot girls? He certainly doesn’t strike me as the diary-writing type, or someone who goes in for meditation or yoga classes. Seeing the pain and longing and tenderness flicker in Mark’s eyes, you genuinely believe that Bridget and her baby could be his best shot at happiness. Rarely do I empathize with rich 40-something white men, but Firth’s earnestness makes it hard not to feel for him — a feat only a truly great rom-com star could pull off.