My chosen streaming service categorises Bridget Jones’s Diary as “swoonworthy”, “sentimental” and “feelgood”. Despite it being a romantic comedy, I am not sure how much I agree that it is sentimental or swoonworthy; in fact, rewatching it for the umpteenth time, what struck me most was how doggedly unsentimental it is. Twenty years after it was first released in cinemas, Bridget Jones’s Diary has become one of the all-time classic British comedies. I can quote great unwieldy chunks of it. It makes me laugh from start to finish. It is rude, hilarious and gleefully chaotic, and there are few films that cheer me up quite like it.
It makes me pine for uncomplicated and unapologetic comedy. It is Christmas jumpers, big knickers, turkey buffets, foul-mouthed friends and the ridiculous public spectacle of an inefficient fight. Most funny films are either awkward or bittersweet now, saturated with a desire to strike a subtle tone, to make you cry as well as laugh, unsure of which category it would like to be in at the Golden Globes. Most television series share any comedy billing with a ‘-drama’ suffix, and it is usually the drama which dominates. But Bridget Jones’s Diary is almost entirely silly, and even its most serious and profound moments revolve around a subplot concerning Pamela’s midlife crisis, in the form of an affair with an orange-faced shopping channel host.
It finds its silliness in a world that is no longer the same as it was, for better and for worse. Twenty years ago might as well be a century away, not least because of the film’s utter dedication to smoking indoors. The characters smoke at home, at parties, in restaurants, in pubs and in offices, as if it were Mad Men, not London in 2001. Bridget is 32, obsessed with her weight and desperate not to become a spinster. She is striving for something different to life as it is, without quite knowing what will make her happy: to be thinner? To be married? Maybe, but probably not. The film never suggests that either will actually make her happy, no matter how much she pins all of her turn-of-the-century hopes on it. What she has is friendship, and to watch this film during a time of social restrictions is borderline cruel. Every problem can be resolved by an emergency committee of friends or family or both, summoned to hash it all out over cigarettes and alcohol.
This is a world before the thinkpiece took hold, before the rabid and rapid assessments of social media. Bridget’s character flaws were recognisable to many women, less so to plenty of others, but not there to be particularly condemned or exalted. Where the film has aged most noticeably, though, is in the flirtation and affair between Bridget and the caddish Daniel Cleaver, her boss at the publishing house, who leaves a hand casually resting on her bottom at work, and sends emails across the office telling her he likes her tits. Daniel’s boss is a sex pest, too, an ogler whose nickname is Mr Tits-Pervert. When Bridget finally tells Daniel where to go, in a moment of fist-pumping defiance, she ends up getting hired on a morning TV show by a man who smarmily tells her that in this job, “No one ever gets sacked for shagging the boss. That’s a matter of principle.” It’s a punchline. It’s funny.
It is also terrible. Staring through the lens of 2021, it is a lawsuit waiting to happen. To watch that played for laughs is a monument to how much has shifted, and how quickly. Helen Fielding, who created Bridget Jones first for a newspaper column, and then turned her into a smash-hit series of novels, took part in a BBC documentary last Christmas to mark the 20th anniversary. She said she did not think the film could be made now, and that was fine. “I think, thank you, #MeToo,” she said, wisely.
Cleaver may be abominable, but Grant has a ball with it, and even with his recent career renaissance, it has to be one of his very best performances. He says he ad-libbed the big pants scene, and to watch him drunkenly wobble off a boat is a masterclass in slapstick. As Bridget, Renee Zellwegger is equally brilliant, totally un-self-conscious, a winningly red-faced anti-heroine - before being an anti-heroine meant an opioid habit and/or having caused at least a death or two - who is trying and failing to do her best. She’s all heart and (very often) no trousers, bouncing from bad decision to Playboy bunny outfit to bad decision, via spectacular karaoke sessions, either solo or in public.
When Bridget finally settles for her man, the stoic human rights lawyer Mark “wanker” Darcy (Colin Firth, on his second Darcy in a decade) – and it’s worth noting that she does settle for him, rather than him for her – it’s the rom part of the com, the swoonworthy-ness, I suppose, that brings it all together. She hated him, and then she loved him, reindeer jumper and all, and in return, he loves her, no matter how many public appearances she flubs, no matter how blue she makes her soup.
It is a crowd-pleasing turn, but it is not sentimental. Those of us who stuck with the sequels, the boldly mad Edge of Reason and the surprisingly charming Bridget Jones’s Baby, will know that the course of true love does not run smooth for them, but I’m not sure it ever promised a movieland happily-ever-after anyway. And that is why the film is feel-good, against an ever-shifting cultural context. It is naive but cynical, joyfully messy, loveably daft. “It’s a sort of celebration of failure, of being a bit shit,” Grant told the BBC. It is an imperfect film, celebrating imperfection.