There’s something strange about seeing Bridget Jones on the big screen after all these years. Strange, because it seems as if she should have returned for a third film much sooner. Strange, too, because Renee Zellweger herself hasn’t been in a film for over half a decade. But strange, above all, because the romantic comedy genre is itself so much a thing of the past – something that only really hit me in full force when watching Bridget Jones’s Baby. While romcoms didn’t tend to produce franchises or sequels in the same way as other major genres – in some ways, the ideal romcom shouldn’t need a sequel – there was nevertheless a feeling, throughout much of the 80s and 90s, that most of the major romcoms were in some sense a sequel to each other, or at least part of a wider, looser sequence that saw many of the biggest actors and actresses from the era effectively playing the same characters several times over. While the names and pairings might have changed, there was no doubt that Hugh Grant in Notting Hill was in some way a continuation of Hugh Grant in Four Weddings and a Funeral, just as Julia Roberts in Notting Hill felt like a crucial stage in her development as a romantic “character” between Pretty Woman and Runaway Bride. And, as the recombination of Roberts and Richard Gere made clear, studios would often couple up the same actors for a second run, making for pairs of films – like Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail – that weren’t quite sequels, but weren’t quite separate either.
In some ways, the first Bridget Jones film felt like a comic riff on that model, since here was a romantic heroine who, at first glance, appeared quite continuous with the leads we had seen previously, but who quickly announced herself as considerably cruder, more irreverent and – most importantly – seduced and somewhat debilitated by the expectations of the romantic comedy genre itself. Coupled with the fact of Zellweger herself being a comparative unknown – especially in Britain, and especially as a comic actress –Bridget Jones’ Diary often seemed to be positioning itself at the end of the cycle of great romantic comedies, offering something a comic vision of their legacy rather than a continuation. Instead of inhabiting the same world as the characters from, say, My Best Friend’s Wedding, Bridget was more the kind of character likely to have spent too many late nights up watching reruns or overdue VHS copies of My Best Friend’s Wedding. It’s all there, really, in that iconic opening scene, where we first meet Bridget singing “All By Myself,” as she desperately – and comically – tries to imagine herself as the lovesick heroine of a romantic comedy at her lowest point, if only because, according to the logic of romantic comedies, that must mean that her fantasy is right around the corner, ready to sweep her off her feet.
What made Bridget Jones’ Diary so deft, however, was the way in which it still managed to offer romantic consolation and even fantasy on its own terms, with Bridget finally finding herself faced with the choice of not one but two very eligible gentlemen. Unable, however, to simply rehearse the same old romantic types without discarding what made Bridget so unique in the first place, Sharon Maguire – drawing upon Helen Fielding’s book – effected a wonderful subversion of the two lead actors who, between them, probably commanded the most hearthrobs over the course of the British 1990s: Hugh Grant and Colin Firth. On the one hand, Grant was presented with the most devious, amoral and irreverent character of his career, as well as the first character whose romantic longings were presented in frankly and fetishistically sexual terms. In other words, Grant was presented with the first character to address his own offscreen persona – not merely his sexscapades with prostitutes, but the irreverent and offhand manner that he often brought to talk shows and variety television, but hadn’t ever really been permitted to the same extent in his big screen, cinematic life.
If Bridges Jones’s’ Diary toyed with Grant by moving him even closer to his offscreen life, then it went the other direction with Firth, utterly collapsing him into his status as a romantic fantasy symbol. While virtually every role that Firth has had in the wake of the BBC production of Pride and Prejudice has drawn upon his depiction of Mr. Darcy, no film has had the audacity to acknowledge it to the same extent as this one, which presented him as “Mark Darcy,” an intensification of all Mr. Darcy’s pomp, circumstance and smouldering romantic longing. Taken to his logical conclusion in this way, Mr. Darcy became somewhat ridiculous, almost self-parodic, even as his intensified romanticism was impossible to resist. In fact, so haunted had Firth’s career been by the Darcy archetype that by simply allowing him to play the fantasy of Darcy in such a direct way Maguire and Fielding freed up his screen persona in quite a cathartic and relieving manner as well. As with Grant, that introduced a new elasticity and self-awareness into Firth’s cinematic presence, opening up the space for some of his more adventurous roles over the next two decades by allowing him to directly acknowledge his inextricability from Darcy once and for all. In effect, the time lapse between the publication of the original novel, in 1996, and the release of the film adaptation, in 2001, meant that Maguire was able to treat the Darcy Craze with all the intensity of its first appearance – and it is referenced in many ways in Fielding’s novel – creating a sense that this particular fixation had finally achieved closure and come full circle.
All of which begs the question of what Bridget Jones’s Baby could possibly mean, given how neatly the original film managed to present itself as a last hurrah of the romcom generation. To some extent, those questions were also raised by Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason, released in 2004, but the proximity to the original film, as well as to the novel, released in 1999, made it feel like a continuation of the original phenomenon – a brilliant riff on the audacity of seeing Grant and Firth demoted from their lofty romantic pinnacle more than a fully-realised sequel. For that very reason, both male leads are possibly even more memorable in the second film than in the first, while Bridget herself also feels more realised and Zellweger more confident, even if the film as a whole feels less certain of itself and less coherent than the original outing. In the case of Bridget Jones’s Baby, however, the situation is very different indeed. For one thing, there was a much longer lapse between the publication of the second and third novel, Bridget Jones: Mad About the Boy, in 2013, than there was between the first and second. Whereas the first two books and films are bundled into a time period that stretches from 1996 to 2004, the third book and film are more decisively millennial, pervaded by digital technology – especially digital dating technology – and set a good decade later than the original sequence, well into the twenty-first century.
That in itself would be enough to decisively sever Bridget Jones’s Baby from the precarious last gasp of the romantic comedy that made the original two films so distinctive. And, indeed, that is very much the tone and import of Bridget Jones: Mad About the Boy, which presents us with Bridget Jones the widow and mother of two children, four years after Mark Darcy has been killed by a land mine explosion doing foreign aid work. Of course, there is a romantic redemption narrative buried in there, as well as a whole lot of observational comedy and raunchy asides, but the overall feel is very different from that of the first two books, and quite reminiscent of the way in which Sue Townsend’s Adrian Mole series – surely a prototype for Bridget Jones – takes on considerably darker and more Gothic dimensions in its later instalments. In other words, Mad About the Boy seems to inhabit a distinctly post-romcom world, so it is perhaps no surprise that Bridget Jones’s Baby departs from Fielding’s novel more radically than either of the first two films, to the point where it is questionable whether this can even be called an adaptation in any real or meaningful sense.
Of course, there are still continuities with Mad About the Boy, not least because Fielding was one of the co-writers of the screenplay, along with Dan Mazer and Emma Thompson, who also plays a memorable bit role as an obstetrician. In this version of the story, Bridget is once again single, but Mark Darcy is still alive and well. Instead, it is Daniel who is – apparently – dead, and the film opens with Bridget and Mark meeting at his funeral several years after getting a divorce. After a few more chance meetings, sparks fly and the two spend a night together, not long after Bridget has also hooked up with a romantic self-help guru, Jack Qwant, played by Patrick Dempsey. When Bridget finds out that she’s pregnant, the rest of the film virtually writes itself, with both Mark and Jack struggling to prove that they are the most reliable and likely fathers, and competing to ingratiate themselves into her domestic life through a plethora of gifts, chores and tokens of paternal responsibility.
If that doesn’t sound like an especially romantic premise, well, that’s because it isn’t, with the demands of parenthood increasingly sucking the life out of the raunchy, irreverent energy of the first two films. If anything, it feels as if Bridget is increasingly punished for her two one-night stands, even as the baby creates a new kind of compensation for her troubles. More to the point, neither Firth nor Dempsey are particularly sexy or appealing, with Dempsey, in particular, sounding a really false note across the film as a whole. In part, that’s because he’s not Grant, and no substitute for Grant – watching him, it’s hard not to realise that the transformation of Grant’s screen persona was in some sense the central spectacle of the original two films, and the charismatic kernel of their screenplays. Without him, there’s no real bad boy, and no real conflict between these two aspiring fathers. Worse, still, as a television actor Dempsey doesn’t have the big-screen, cinematic presence that was so wonderfully punctured in the first two films, with the result that there is always something slightly bathetic and anticlimactic about his immediacy and availability to someone like Bridget. Granted, the decline of cinema means that that big-screen presence would feel anachronistic even if Grant was still around, and so in that sense the choice of Dempsey is quite canny. Still, there is something strangely impotent about the way in which the film sets him up as a romantic icon to be demystified, just as it often feels as if the film is longing for Firth to be as inextricable from Darcy as he once was, in order for it to be able to comically puncture and reinvent him as thoroughly as it did a whole decade and a half ago.
Nevertheless, there is a brief moment, just before the end, at which it feels as if this lack of any really dynamic conflict between the two male leads might just become the film’s biggest asset. While Bridget Jones’s Baby may be less raunchy, on the whole, than the first two films, it demonstrates a much more consistent fixation with alternatives to married, monogamous sexual encounters. In part, that corresponds to the shift away from Bridget’s previous circle of friends, all of whom are now married with children, or married and expecting, even her gay best friend Tom (James Callis), who, in the first two films, was presented, fairly stereotypically, as the life of the party, and the most promiscuous of the bunch. In their place, Bridget forms an alliance with coworker Miranda, a new character played by Sarah Solemani, whose obsession with threesomes starts to have a bit of an impact upon Bridget as well, even if it clarifies just how retiring her raunchiness always was.
Not surprisingly, Miranda is presented the cutting-edge and coal face of the online dating scene as well, and her revelations are all the more disorienting in that Bridget can’t even rely on her parents to be bastions of conservative marital values any more either. In a comic subplot, her mother, Pamela (Gemma Jones) embraces the queer constituents of her parish in her bid for local election, but the most destabilizing moment comes when Bridget’s father Colin (Jim Broadbent) reveals to her that he may not in fact be her father. It’s hard to think of this being anything other than a world-shattering disclosure in the first two films, but here it is handled in a fairly casual, matter-of-fact manner, and without the least trace of pathos, as Colin only offers the information in the first place to support Bridget’s decision to have the baby without knowing or even needing to know the identity of the father, while also assuring her that biology doesn’t really have any impact upon her being his daughter.
In other words, where the first two films trod a fine line between embracing and parodying the cycles of monogamous nuclear family life around which the romantic comedy revolves, it often feels as if Bridget Jones’s Baby has abandoned – or been compelled to abandon – them altogether. Hence when Mark and Jack are confused for a pair of gay fathers at Bridget’s maternity workshops it doesn’t lead to anything like the kind of comic set piece that might be imagined, while Emma Thompson’s role as the cheerily pragmatic obstetrician does away with the kinds of residual awkwardness and conflict between the two men that might also have driven an earlier kind of film. By the end, it feels as if the logical conclusion is for both men to be involved in Bridget’s life – and the life of her child – in some way, since by the time the baby is delivered both of them have thought of themselves as her father. Nevertheless, it’s still a shock to arrive at the final scene, which depicts Bridget walking down the aisle to marry Mark while Jack cradles the baby in his arms in the front row. Even if the film has seemed to be heading towards this moment – Mark is the husband, Jack is the father – it’s still a brave enough move to make Bridget Jones’s Baby feel every bit as audacious as the first two films, if not more so. At the same time, it gives the title a very different kind of spin, offering up a version of the romantic comedy and subsequent family drama in which a child doesn’t have to belong to anyone definitively other than its mother.
It’s a rude shock, then, when it turns out that Jack’s position and bearing in the audience is something of a feint and that the child is in fact Mark’s. From what appeared to be a wonderfully elastic testing of the relationship between marriage and parenthood, we’re back in a world in which marriage necessarily equates with parenthood, and vice versa. In terms of the archetypes of romantic comedy, it’s a bit like moving from Three Men and a Little Lady to Father of the Bride Part II, and while I love both films there’s something profoundly disappointing in the way in which Bridget Jones’s Baby fails to make good on the funniest and most audacious parts of its premise. At the level of narrative, too, it’s frustrating, since the pieces fit so naturally into place that it takes a real act of contrivance to transform this scenario of mixed parenthood and potential polyamoury into something so tightly bound by the very conventions that the original films dealt with so irreverently. Sure, there might be some small consolation in the revelation that Daniel Cleaver is apparently still alive and well, but by this point the film almost needs a small injection of Grant to avoid becoming a total parody of itself, or a total parody of the series as a whole.
Just as a more adventurous ending might have crystallised everything daring – or at least latently daring – about Bridget Jones’s Baby, so this contrivance tends to make everything that has preceded it feel contrived as well. Most glaringly, the montage of clips from the first two films that occurs in the final act doesn’t feel like an impetus to further innovation but a longing for the vision and panache of those films, as well as their unique position at the end of the great cycle of 90s romantic comedies. More pervasively, the subplot revolving around Mark’s defense of a band that is clearly modelled on Pussy Riot really strikes a sour note. Throughout the film, Mark’s incongruity with this band, and what it stands for, is mined as a source of comedy, but by the end – and because of the end – it has entirely whittled away whatever feminist spirit and resilience remained from the first two films. In what, retrospectively, feels like the key scene of the film, Mark, Jack and Bridget turn their back on a Pussy Riot demonstration in order to take her to hospital to have the baby, and while nobody would reasonably expect them to attend the protest in that particular state, the framing, scripting and tenor of their retreat from the rioters to the sanctity of parenthood and family life can’t help but feel like a summary of the film itself.
In a strange way, then, Bridget Jones’s Baby plays as the last romantic comedy but only because of how emphatically it refuses to see a way forward for the genre. Nostalgic for the first two films to the point of precluding a genuinely adventurous future for Bridget, it offers us an even more emphatic vision of a world in which singledom is never seen as anything other than pathetic, but without the parodic touches that led the first two films to question that worldview in the first place. For the great secret of Bridget Jones’s Diary and Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason was that the characters were most meaningful and charismatic when they were single – or, rather, when they were on the verge of coalescing into romantic configurations but hadn’t quite stabilised into the sedimented nuclear structures on display here. That produced a unique sense of play and a distinctive feeling of spontaneity and improvisation that turns out to be disappointingly absent from Bridget Jones’s Baby, which seems determined to prove to us, against all odds, that the characters only achieve memorability once we’re able to label, define and fix their relation to each other once and for all. In a strange way, though, that just makes me even more anxious for another sequel, since this is finally a bit of a sorry footnote to the first two films. Here’s hoping that Grant re-enters the picture to throw a bit of a spanner in the works – it’s about time that he was given an opportunity to return to the laddish, irreverent persona that he does to perfection.