Embracing Imperfection: ‘Bridget Jones’s Diary’ Turns 20

Bridget Jones's Diary Movie Film

Most rom-coms falter at either the romance or the comedy. Bridget Jones’s Diary, which turns 20 in April 2021, is the rare example of a film in this often unfairly-derided subgenre that gives equal attention to both and is all the better for it. The 2001 adaptation of Helen Fielding’s hugely popular eponymous novel — directed by Sharon Maguire from a script credited to Fielding herself, Andrew Davies and rom-com king Richard Curtis — has aged thanks to the omnipresence of cigarettes and some creaky old technology (a Nokia cellphone with removable cases stands out). However, the central message of Bridget Jones’s Diary about finding your self-worth outside of a romantic relationship is utterly timeless. 

Naturally, it helps that a bunch of demonstrably talented women worked behind the scenes on everything from casting to costumes, as well as the all-important production design and set dressing, which give Bridget Jones’s Diary its inherently warm, cozy atmosphere and an almost fairytale-like quality. Indeed, the snow-covered opening sequence resembles the beginning of a fairytale, complemented by the heroine’s soft-voiced narration. The first of many brilliant jokes occurs barely a minute in, and the film is still laugh out loud funny no matter how many times you’ve seen it over the years. Two decades may have passed, but the sight of mini gherkins speared with cocktail sticks, arranged delicately on a plate for serving as an appetizer, will never not be hilarious and cringeworthy in equal measure — the tone of Bridget Jones’s Diary, captured in one defining image. 

Another significant way in which Bridget Jones’s Diary is still laugh out loud funny is the impeccable needle drops sprinkled throughout which, in a less accomplished movie, would be grating. The first sees a pajama-clad Bridget belting out Celine Dion’s version of “All by Myself” alone in her apartment. It’s a brilliantly choreographed sequence, at the end of which the film’s title appears, almost as another joke at her expense. It’s obvious now how perfectly cast Renée Zellweger was, but — at the time — the thought of a non-English actor playing this most English of roles was unconscionable. Zellweger gives it absolute socks (quite literally, during her Celine moment), and she lets audiences know right from the outset how committed she is to the character, which is one of her favorites, as the actress has said many times. It’s worth noting, too, that the Texas native’s English accent is faultless, bested only by Lake Bell in Man Up, a modern rom-com that owes a lot to Bridget Jones’s Diary. 

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Bridget Jones's Diary Movie Film

Whether it’s the swoon-worthy nature of Van Morrison’s “Someone Like You,” which plays over the film’s tender closing moments, or Geri Halliwell’s take on “It’s Raining Men,” which soundtracks the hilariously-inept street fight between Bridget’s love rivals, the song choices are impeccable. Many movies use music cues to clue viewers into something the filmmakers are struggling to communicate otherwise, or even to drum an already obvious point home further, but the world of Bridget Jones’s Diary is so finely sketched that the songs simply complement the action without ever interfering with it. Even “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” comes across as charming rather than cheesy. 

There’s so little setup required because this is such a specific snapshot in time, taking place over just one year out of this woman’s life as she falls in love, gets her heart broken and finally decides to take control of her future. Considering it’s a 97-minute movie, Bridget Jones’s Diary’s pacing is hugely impressive. Nothing is dwelled on too long but, by the same token, moments big and small don’t full rushed either. Likewise, Zellweger’s narration is sharply funny, never wears out its welcome and doesn’t overexplain how Bridget herself is feeling. Like the soundtrack, it’s there to accompany the story, not to overpower it. The peripheral characters are beautifully written and gamely played by a cast of beloved British character actors, particularly Jim Broadbent and Gemma Jones as Bridget’s parents, who have their own genuinely captivating relationship drama to contend with.

Meanwhile, Bridget’s friends — her “urban family” as it were — are simultaneously incredibly useful, encouraging and just as messed up as she is. They’re a lively bunch, the kind of people you could easily imagine getting hammered with, but they are also, crucially, there for Bridget when she needs them. Although there are plenty of borderline Carry On-style moments to enjoy here, what truly sets Bridget Jones’s Diary apart is its heart, which is as wide open and desperate for love as the film’s protagonist’s. Watching it as a woman in her thirties is vastly different to watching it in your twenties, when Hugh Grant’s suave yet casually racist and openly sexist Daniel Cleaver seemed like a reasonable proposition. Grant is at his caddish best, but he’s no match for Colin Firth’s Mark Darcy — casting Pride and Prejudice’s Mr. Darcy as another Mr. Darcy was a genius move — who’s essentially an uptight dreamboat. 

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Bridget Jones's Diary Movie Film

Although Mark is clearly a safer bet than Daniel, the story is so well-crafted and ultimately kind to Bridget that the big revelation about how he and Daniel fell out still stings just as keenly. Bridget Jones’s Diary cleverly, and very subtly, clues audiences in as to who is more right for the protagonist. While on a date with Daniel, Bridget remarks how she apparently used to play naked in Mark’s paddling pool as a child, to which he responds, “I bet you did, you dirty bitch.” Later, when joking about their age difference, Bridget notes the setup was “a bit pervy” and Mark, eyes locked on her, acknowledges cheekily, “I like to think so.” They have similar flirting styles, but Mark’s approach is considerably nicer and more respectful. Indeed, both men turn up at Bridget’s door on her birthday, Mark to celebrate a recent triumph in her new job and Daniel because he assumed she’d have nobody to celebrate with. 

Daniel consistently underestimates Bridget at every turn, which makes the moment she uses his own nasty line against him so gratifying. Bridget Jones’s Diary is heartbreaking and life-affirming in equal measure, which is a difficult balance to pull off, particularly in a movie that frequently treats its protagonist quite harshly. For instance, the line “I thought you said she was thin,” delivered after Bridget has just discovered Daniel cheating on her, could only have been written by a woman. It cuts directly to what she is so deeply insecure about, proving that nobody hurts a woman like another woman. 

The issue of Bridget’s weight has been debated at length over the past 20 years, and it’s true that, as presented in the movie, she’s a normal-sized, even slim woman who’s actually quite small by today’s standards. Likewise, the infamous granny panties Bridget sports to suck everything in are so popular nowadays that celebrities boast of wearing them on the red carpet — hell, they made Kim Kardashian a billionaire thanks to her Spanx-like brand, Skims, which specializes in all-over control wear. It’s worth remembering that this is a woman’s story through and through, with all the uncomfortable elements of our experience included without apology. Bridget’s story isn’t about finding the right man, as everybody in her life demands she do before it’s too late, but rather about finding her own self-worth. The real love story is with herself. (The shot of Bridget sitting alone at the top of a table at a couples’ dinner party while, at the exact opposite end, a couple sits together just to rub it in more that she’s alone, is genius in its cruelty.)

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Bridget Jones's Diary Movie Film

The central message of Bridget Jones’s Diary, then, is empowering but in an understated manner. Bridget’s colleague Perpetua (Felicity Montagu), whom she assumes hates her and thinks she’s a moron, stands up for Bridget as she tells Daniel off — “I’d rather have a job wiping Saddam Hussein’s arse”–– and leaves the job she knows she’s too good for (to the strains of Aretha Franklin’s “Respect,” natch). In a previous scene, the older woman watches Bridget worriedly as she frets about yet another setback in her life, suggesting there’s plenty of support if only Bridget would open her eyes to it. The male characters, meanwhile, run the gamut from pervy, like Bridget’s fake uncle who assumes her boyfriend is fictional, to inept, including dear old Dad, who realizes he must try harder even in his own long-term relationship, but they aren’t necessarily villains. The message isn’t that hating men is the answer, since Bridget is caught out believing Mark betrayed Daniel, much to her horror, but rather that more understanding and acceptance is required across the board, from everyone. 

At its core, Bridget Jones’s Diary is a movie only a woman could have conceived and brought to life. There are so many wonderful details sprinkled throughout for female viewers to pick up on, including Bridget’s lovely but messy flat with its shitty, green-tiled bathroom, the fact her work getup includes sneakers, little makeup and flat hair, and how her skin brightens up as she gradually grows more confident in herself, with the repeated shot of Bridget strolling across the bridge to work eloquently establishing how she’s striding towards a better life. Cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh, who also shot The Piano, gradually warms up the picture as the heroine starts to do better, bringing more color into her world as everything around Bridget begins to shift, including her own worldview. It’s a terrific choice for a movie that starts off pale and chilly yet eventually feels considerably warmer in wintertime.

There are many reasons to celebrate Bridget Jones’s Diary, but what’s immediately apparent after 20 years is that this is a woman’s story for women, one that proudly wears its heart on its sleeve alongside its many imperfections. All the big pants, bunny ears and blue soup in the world will not change the fact that we love Bridget just the way she is. 

Joey Keogh (@JoeyLDG) is a writer from Dublin, Ireland with an unhealthy appetite for horror movies and Judge Judy. In stark contrast with every other Irish person ever, she’s straight edge. Hello to Jason Isaacs.

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