To be or not to be…single. That seems to have been the question that entered the mind of single women the world over during the late ’90s, a time when an entire subculture seems to have been created by two landmark pieces of popular culture: Sex and the City and Bridget Jones’s Diary. That the two arrived at around the same time is one of those fascinating coincidences that make us wonder if all along society was leading towards similar conclusions. Or was it all just a happy accident?
Regardless of the sociological causes that shifted the single woman from being a supporting character or villain (think Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction and Rebecca de Mornay in The Hand That Rocks the Cradle) to a leading character — a heroine, even — the phenomenon came to stay and for a few years it seemed that female empowerment in the media was the new way to go. With Bridget Jones’s Diary and Sex and the City as its allies, a new wave of feminism in which women owned their sexuality and realized they didn’t need a man to be “complete” spread like wildfire, and for a second or two it looked like we would start getting smart, female-driven, comedies and more satisfying roles for women.
Fast forward a decade and in a way we’re back at the beginning, the sad role of chauvinism has invaded the media all over so much that when men have irresponsible fun they get Golden Globes (The Hangover) but when women do, they’re trashed by critics and audiences alike (Sex and the City 2). Is it any mystery then, why the women of these shows and movies, that once seemed so invincible, end up recurring to stable, monogamous relationships to validate their lives? Was this post-feminism nothing but a fantasy?
If such was the case, then Bridget Jones’s Diary not only embodies everything that made this wave of “girl power” so inspiring, it also serves as a fascinating time capsule that now, in a newly released Blu-ray version, should invite women to dream big and take control of their sexuality all over again.
Directed by documentary filmmaker Sharon Maguire, the film is an adaptation of Helen Fielding’s bestseller, which Salman Rushdie himself praised as a work of genius. The film, very much like the book, covers a year in the life of British singleton Bridget Jones (Renée Zellweger) who at the very start of the year decides to take control of her life (as well as alcohol, nicotine and fat units consumed) by starting a diary. In this way, the film advances in episodes in which we see Bridget engage in a destructive, but-oh-so-deliciously-lustful, relationship with her boss Daniel Cleaver (a lecherous, impossibly irresistible Hugh Grant) and then develop a crush on a man she fears is even worse for her: the snobbish Mark Darcy (Colin Firth).
The beauty of the film isn’t in its destination, however, but rather in Bridget’s muddled journey in which we see her — in the best Madonna fashion — constantly reinventing herself and going from friend to confidante, to sensational TV reporter, to crappy karaoke singer, to loving, affectionate daughter and then ultimately a better version of herself, despite the film’s seeming need to try to restrict and steer her path towards standard societal choices.
The film is powered by Zellweger’s iconic performance, after a controversial casting process that had some British people offended at the unseemingly thought of a Texan playing one of their current heroines, the actress ended up immersing herself into Bridget so much that she not only gained 20 pounds and perfected a British accent, she also worked undercover in a publishing house to get a better feel of a work environment Bridget isn’t even much part of. Regardless of the techniques she used to create her character, the truth is that Zellweger makes it look so effortless that not for a second do you doubt she’s just Bridget.
Notice how she manages to be hilarious in an almost subversive, genre way and then two seconds later she gets under your skin and moves you to tears. She delivers a truly fearless performance that elevates the movie from a mindless romantic comedy into a character study that also happens to be funny. When Bridget could’ve been just a vessel for Maguire’s interpretation of Fielding’s creation, Zellweger fills her with insight and traits that go beyond the symbolic.
As the object of a study on “Singleton Behavior 101”, Bridget at first seems to embody the idea “smug marrieds” have of singles (if you thought Harry Potter had weird British-isms, wait for Bridget, although a handy glossary is included among the bonus features among other handy featurettes and mini documentaries). A journalist in the book describes them as “young, ambitious and rich but their lives hide an aching loneliness…When they leave work a gaping emotional hole opens up before them…Lonely style-obsessed individuals seek consolation in packeted comfort food of the kind their mother might have made”.
The rich transfer of the epistolary book into quasi-episodic film is an outstanding job of writing. You gotta love how they manage to take the fear and shame inducing confessions of the book, which is practically a 200+ page inner monologue, and turn them into something that works as introspective self-reflexion, as well as mainstream comedy. Is it any wonder, that Bridget Jones’s Diary just like Dracula both use the epistolary technique, given they both explore the sexual fears and concerns of different centuries? Anyway, this film also worked as the ultimate version of a series of British rom-coms that had been challenging the genre since Four Weddings and a Funeral, which is no coincidence given that both were written by Richard Curtis, among others.
For all its reputation as a chick flick, a star vehicle or mindless entertainment, a more critical look at Bridget Jones’s Diary reveals a richly layered piece that deals with subjects such as meta-existence (Darcy is played by Firth who played Mr. Darcy in the famed TV version of Pride & Prejudice which itself was used as the basis for Bridget Jones’s Diary), societal expectations of women and deeper Freudian analysis of the roles of parenting in a child’s dating life (Bridget’s parents are joyously played by Jim Broadbent and Gemma Jones whose tragicomic relationship deserves a movie of its own), the appropriation of sex as a weapon and more. But don’t look into these too issues much. Enjoy the film for what it is: one of the best comedies in recent history.