Bryan Alexander, USA TODAY
USA TODAY - There are many hot Regency-era studs strutting their stuff in the comedy Austenland,which opens Friday andcenters on an English theme park catering to fans obsessed with English author Jane Austen.
But when it comes to pure period sexiness, one Austen character continues to rule over obsessed fans throughout the world and in Austenland - Colin Firth's portrayal of Mr. Darcy from the 1995 BBC miniseries Pride and Prejudice. (It was subsequently imported by A&E.)
The portrayal continues to literally grow in stature nearly 20 years on (and 200 years after Austen penned the story): This summer, a 12-foot-tall statue was erected in Hyde Park's Serpentine Lake in London, re-creating the heart-fluttering scene in which Firth's Darcy emerged from a pond in a soaked shirt.
"His Darcy is what started the current Jane Austen explosion and the Mr. Darcy explosion," says author Mia March, whose novel Finding Colin Firth was published in July. "It just continues to grow as a new generation of women discover it. His Mr. Darcy represents everything every woman wants. He's ageless and timeless and gorgeous forever."
In Austenland, Firth himself appears only as a large cardboard cutout cherished by Jane Hayes (played by Keri Russell), whose obsession with his portrayal is ruining her life. The 2012 Shannon Hale novel on which the movie is based is even dedicated to the author's muse. "For Colin Firth: You're a really great guy, but I'm married, so I think we should just be friends."
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Austenland screenwriter and director Jerusha Hess says the filmmakers (including producer Stephenie Meyer) "giggled" about the idea of bringing Firth on board for a cameo appearance but gave up on the concept before even asking. Yet his Darcy looms large.
Jane Seymour, who stars as the operator of the Austenland theme park, says she has seen women "froth at the mouth" in person around Firth. She totally gets it.
"Colin Firth is definitely the best Mr. Darcy," she says without hesitation. "You just believed him. He became a timeless Mr. Darcy. He was sexy and very appealing and yet gentlemanly. He had every quality that Jane Austen wrote. And he's my favorite kind of smoking hot - where they don't look like they know it."
Firth, 52, has gone on to win every type of critical acclaim and an Oscar for 2010's The King's Speech. But even he has confided to Seymour that some roles just "stick." He has carried the accolades well, sending up his period portrayal playing modern-day Mark Darcy in two Bridget Jones films alongside Renee Zellweger.
Seymour says Firth quietly lives up to the Darcy hype. "There are a lot of great actors, but not many great men. Colin is a great man as well. For women to fantasize about him is a good thing."
Russell says men can be frustrated or envious by Firth's portrayal. In Austenland, her fed-up boyfriend knocks off the cardboard cutout's head. "His Darcy is so brooding yet so beautiful and sensitive at the end. He plays it exactly right for the ladies," Russell says. "But men are like, 'Stop it! Stop making us live up to those standards!' "
It can also be tough for other actors taking on period parts to live up to the Firth standard. But J.J. Feild, who plays Darcy-like Henry Nobley in Austenland, says it was comforting to take a role in the seemingly timeless shadow.
"Colin Firth is the god of Jane Austen. So I don't think anyone is going to be able to match him," Feild says. "And the fact that there was such an iconic performance means there was absolutely no pressure for me. I'm not going to be stepping out of ponds like he does."