Identified in the late 1980s with the "Brit Pack" of rising, young British actors, it was not until Firth's portrayal of Mr. Darcy in the 1995 television adaptation of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice that he received more widespread attention. This led to roles in films such as The English Patient, Bridget Jones's Diary (for which Firth was nominated for a BAFTA), Shakespeare in Love, and Love Actually. In 2009, Firth received widespread critical acclaim for his leading role in A Single Man, for which Firth gained his first Academy Award nomination, and won a BAFTA Award. Firth starred in the action spy movie Kingsman: The Secret Service in 2014, which was a commercial success and received generally positive reviews.
His films have grossed more than $3 billion from 42 releases worldwide. In 2011, Firth received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and was also selected as one of the Time 100. He was awarded an honorary degree from the University of Winchester in 2007, and was made a Freeman of the City of London in 2012. He has campaigned for the rights of indigenous tribal peoples, and is a member of Survival International. Firth has also campaigned on issues of asylum seekers, refugees' rights, and the environment. He commissioned and is credited as a co-author on a scientific paper on a study into the differences in brain structure between people of differing political orientations.
Firth was born in the village of Grayshott, Hampshire, to parents who were both academics and teachers. His mother, Shirley Jean (née Rolles), was a comparative religion lecturer at King Alfred's College (now the University of Winchester), and his father, David Norman Lewis Firth, was a history lecturer at King Alfred's and education officer for the Nigerian Government. Firth is the eldest of three children; he has a sister, Kate, an actress and voice coach, and a brother, Jonathan, an actor. Both of his parents were raised in India, because his maternal grandparents, Congregationalist ministers, and his paternal grandfather, an Anglican priest, performed overseas missionary work.
As a child, Firth frequently travelled due to his parents' work, spending some years in Nigeria. He also lived in St. Louis, Missouri when he was 11, which he has described as "a difficult time". On returning to England, he attended the Montgomery of Alamein Secondary School (now Kings' School), which at the time was a state comprehensive school in Winchester, Hampshire. He was still an outsider and was the target of bullying. To counter this, he adopted the local working class Hampshire accent and copied his schoolmates' lack of interest in schoolwork.
By the time he was 14, Firth had already decided to be a professional actor, having attended drama workshops from the age of 10. Until further education, he was not academically inclined, later saying in an interview, "I didn't like school. I just thought it was boring and mediocre and nothing they taught me seemed to be of any interest at all." However, at Barton Peveril Sixth Form College in Eastleigh, he was imbued with a love of English literature by an enthusiastic teacher, Penny Edwards, and has said that his two years at Barton Peveril were "among the two happiest years of my life".
After his sixth form years, Firth moved to London and joined the National Youth Theatre. There, he made many contacts in the acting world, from which he got a job in the wardrobe department at the National Theatre. From there, he went on to study at Drama Centre London.
Playing Hamlet in the Drama Centre end of year production, Firth was spotted by playwright Julian Mitchell, who cast him as the gay, ambitious public schoolboy Guy Bennett in the 1983 West End production of Another Country. In 1984, Firth made his film debut in the role of Tommy Judd, Guy Bennett's straight, Marxist school friend in the screen adaptation of the play (opposite Rupert Everett as Guy Bennett). This was the start of longstanding public feud between Firth and Everett, which was later resolved. He starred with Sir Laurence Olivier in Lost Empires (1986), a TV adaptation of J. B. Priestley's novel.
In 1987, Firth along with other up and coming British actors such as Tim Roth, Bruce Payne and Paul McGann were dubbed the 'Brit Pack'. That same year, he appeared alongside Kenneth Branagh in the film version of J. L. Carr's A Month in the Country. Sheila Johnston observed a theme in his early works of playing those traumatised by war. Firth portrayed real-life British soldier Robert Lawrence MC in the 1988 BBC dramatisation Tumbledown. Lawrence was severely injured at the Battle of Mount Tumbledown during the Falklands War, and the film details his struggles to adjust to his disability whilst confronted with indifference from the government and the public. The film attracted controversy at the time, with criticism coming from left and right ends of the political spectrum. Firth's performance led to a Royal TV Society Best Actor Award and he was nominated for the 1989 BAFTA Television Award. In 1989, he played the title role in Miloš Forman's Valmont, based on Les Liaisons dangereuses. This was released just a year after Dangerous Liaisons and did not make a big impact in comparison. The same year, he played a paranoid, socially awkward character in Argentinian psychological thriller Apartment Zero.
It was through his role as the aloof and haughty aristocrat Mr. Darcy in the 1995 BBC television adaptation of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice that Firth finally became a household name. He was producer Sue Birtwistle's first choice for the part, eventually being persuaded to take it, despite initial reluctance as he was unfamiliar with Austen's writing. Firth and co-star Jennifer Ehle began a romantic relationship during the filming of the series, which only received media attention after the couple's separation. Sheila Johnston wrote that Firth's approach to the part "lent Darcy complex shades of coldness, even caddishness, in the early episodes." The serial was a major international success, and unexpectedly elevated Firth to stardom, in some part due to an iconic scene in which he emerged in a wet shirt after swimming. Although Firth did not mind being recognised as "a romantic idol as a Darcy with smouldering sex appeal" in a role that "officially turned him into a heart-throb", he expressed the wish not to be associated with Pride and Prejudice forever. He was, therefore, reluctant to accept similar roles and risk becoming typecast. For a time, it did seem as if Mr. Darcy would overshadow the rest of his career, and there were humorous allusions to the role in his next five movies. The most notable of these was the casting of Firth as love interest Mark Darcy in the film adaptation of Bridget Jones's Diary, itself a modern-day retelling of Pride and Prejudice. Firth accepted the part as he saw it as an opportunity to lampoon his Mr. Darcy character. The film was very successful and critically well-liked. A sequel in 2004 was mostly panned by critics but was still financially successful. Firth had a supporting role in The English Patient (1996) playing the husband of Kristin Scott Thomas's character, whose jealousy about her adultery leads to both their deaths. He had parts in light romantic period pieces such as Shakespeare in Love (1998), Relative Values (2000), and The Importance of Being Earnest (2002). He appeared in several television productions, including Donovan Quick (an updated version of Don Quixote) (1999) and had a more serious and villainous role as Dr. Wilhelm Stuckart in Conspiracy (2001), concerning the Nazi Wannsee Conference; Firth was nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award for his role.
Firth featured in the ensemble all-star cast of Richard Curtis' Love Actually (2003), another financial success, which divided critics. In contrast that year, Firth was also given solo billing as the romantic lead in Hope Springs, but the film received very poor reviews and made little impact at the box office. Firth played the painter Johannes Vermeer opposite Scarlett Johansson in the 2003 release Girl with a Pearl Earring. Some critics praised the film's gentle subtlety and sumptuous visuals, whilst others found it almost too restrained, tedious and bereft of emotion. Nevertheless, the film had mostly favourable reviews, was moderately successful with audiences and gained several awards and nominations. 2005's Nanny McPhee with Emma Thompson was a rare venture for Firth into the fantasy genre. Where the Truth Lies from that year was also a departure from light comedies, this time a return to some of Firth's darker, more intense early roles, with a notorious scene featuring him involved in a bisexual orgy. Sheila Johnston wrote that it "confounded his fans" but despite that his character "draws knowingly on that suave, cultivated persona." which could be traced from Mr. Darcy. Other films from this time include Then She Found Me (2007) with Helen Hunt and The Last Legion (2007) with Aishwarya Rai. In 2008, he played the adult Blake Morrison reminiscing on his difficult relationship with his ailing father in the film adaptation of Morrison's memoir And When Did You Last See Your Father?. The film received generally favourable reviews.Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian rated the film four out of five stars. Manohla Dargis in The New York Times said: "It's a pleasure to watch Mr. Firth – a supremely controlled actor who makes each developing fissure visible – show the adult Blake coming to terms with his contradictory feelings, letting the love and the hurt pour out of him."Philip French of The Observer wrote that Firth "[does] quiet agonising to perfection." However, Derek Elley of Variety called the film "an unashamed tearjerker that's all wrapping and no center." While he conceded that it was "undeniably effective at a gut level despite its dramatic shortcomings," he added that "Things aren't helped any by Firth's dour perf, as his Blake comes across as a self-centered whiner, a latter-day Me Generation figure who's obsessed with finding problems when there really aren't any."
The film adaptation of Mamma Mia! (2008), was Firth's first foray into musicals, and he described the experience as "a bit nerve-wracking" but believed he got off lightly by being tasked with one of the less demanding songs, Our Last Summer. Mamma Mia became the highest grossing British-made film of all time, taking over $600 million worldwide. As with Love Actually, it polarised critics in their opinions, with supporters such as Empire calling it "cute, clean, camp fun, full of sunshine, and toe tappers." whereas Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian said the film gave him a "need to vomit". Carrie Rickey in The Philadelphia Inquirer described Firth's performance as "the embodiment of forced mirth." That year, Firth also starred in Easy Virtue, which screened at the Rome Film Festival to excellent reviews. Firth starred in Genova which premiered at the 2008 Toronto International Film Festival.
In 2009, he featured in A Christmas Carol, an adaptation of Charles Dickens's novel, using the performance capture procedure, playing Scrooge's optimistic nephew Fred.
At the 66th Venice International Film Festival in 2009, Firth was awarded the Volpi Cup for Best Actor for his role in Tom Ford's directorial debut A Single Man as a college professor grappling with solitude after the death of his longtime partner. His performance earned Firth career best reviews and Academy Award, Golden Globe, Screen Actors' Guild, BAFTA, and BFCA nominations; he won the BAFTA Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role in February 2010.
Firth starred in the 2010 film The King's Speech as Prince Albert, Duke of York/King George VI. The film details his working to overcome his speech impediment while becoming monarch of the United Kingdom at the end of 1936. At the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), the film was met with a standing ovation. The TIFF release of The King's Speech fell on Colin's 50th birthday and was called the "best 50th birthday gift". On 16 January 2011, he won a Golden Globe for his performance in The King's Speech in the category of Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture – Drama. The Screen Actors Guild recognised Firth with the award for Best Male Actor for The King's Speech on 30 January 2011. In February 2011, he won the best actor award at the 2011 BAFTA awards. He received an Academy Award for Best Actor in a motion picture for The King's Speech on 27 February 2011. It went on to gross $414,211,549 worldwide.
Firth appeared as senior British secret agent Bill Haydon in the 2011 adaptation of the John le Carré novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, directed by Tomas Alfredson, also starring Gary Oldman and Tom Hardy. The film gathered mostly excellent reviews. The Independent described Firth's performance as "suavely arrogant" and praised the film. Deborah Young in The Hollywood Reporter thought Firth got "all the best dialogue", which he delivered "sardonically". Leslie Felperin in Variety wrote that all the actors brought their "A game" and Firth was in "particularly choleric, amusing form." However, Peter Hitchens writing in the Daily Mail expressed reservations that Firth looked too young for the part (even though he technically was) being "of the post-war generation, who escaped wartime privation," and, therefore, not "old enough or ravaged enough".
In May 2011, Firth began filming Gambit – a remake of a 1960s crime caper, taking a part played in the original by Michael Caine. It was released in the UK in November 2012 and was a financial and critical failure, attracting many negative reviews. Empire's Kim Newman wrote, "Firth starts out homaging Caine with his horn-rimmed cool but soon defaults to his usual repressed British clod mode", whilst Time Out London called his a "likeable performance", although criticised the film overall. Stephen Dalton writing in The Hollywood Reporter said "To his credit, Firth keeps his performance grounded in downbeat realism while all around are wildly mugging in desperate pursuit of thin, forced laughs. He will appear in Rupert Everett's directorial debut The Happy Prince, an Oscar Wilde biopic. Firth will play Wilde's friend Reginald "Reggie" Turner. Shooting began in September 2016. Firth was also expected to return for the third Bridget Jones film, which was in production in 2012.
In May 2013, it was announced that Firth had signed to co-star with Emma Stone in Woody Allen's romantic comedy Magic in the Moonlight, set in the 1920s, shot on the French Riviera.
In 2015, Firth starred as Harry Hart a.k.a. "Galahad" in the spy action film Kingsman: The Secret Service. Kingsman: The Secret Service earned a gross of $414.4 million, against a budget of $81 million.
In June 2015, he was reported to be filming the story of Donald Crowhurst in The Mercy, in which he stars as the yachtsman alongside Rachel Weisz, David Thewlis, and Jonathan Bailey.
In 2016, Firth reprised his popular role as Mark Darcy in "Bridget Jones's Baby", which fared much better with audiences and critics than the second in the series ("Bridget Jones: Edge of Reason"). Also in 2016, Firth portrayed American editor Max Perkins in the critically acclaimed Genius alongside Jude Law as author Thomas Wolfe. The film, which is based on A. Scott Berg's biography Max Perkins: Editor of Genius.
In 2017, he reprised his role as Jamie from 2003's Love Actually in the television short film Red Nose Day Actually, by original writer and director Richard Curtis. Also that year, Firth returned as Harry Hart in the sequel Kingsman: The Golden Circle.
Firth will play British naval commander David Russell in Thomas Vinterberg's Kursk, a film about the true story of the 2000 Kursk submarine disaster in which he stars alongside Matthias Schoenaerts. Filming began in April 2017. He will be appearing as William Weatherall Wilkins, president of the Fidelity Fiduciary Bank, in the 2018 film Mary Poppins Returns, and will once again portray Harry Bright in the sequel to Mamma Mia!, Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again!
Firth's first published work, "The Department of Nothing", appeared in Speaking with the Angel (2000). This collection of short stories was edited by Nick Hornby and was published to benefit the TreeHouse Trust, in aid of autistic children. Firth had previously met Hornby during the filming of the original Fever Pitch. Colin Firth contributed with his writing for the book, We Are One: A Celebration of Tribal Peoples, released in 2009. The book explores the cultures of peoples around the world, portraying both their diversity and the threats that they face. It features contributions from many Western writers, such as Laurens van der Post, Noam Chomsky, Claude Lévi-Strauss, and also from indigenous people, such as Davi Kopenawa Yanomami and Roy Sesana. The royalties from the sale of this book go to the indigenous rights organisation, Survival International.
Firth was an executive producer for the film In Prison My Whole Life, featuring Noam Chomsky and Angela Davis. The film was selected to the 2007 London Film Festival and the 2008 Sundance Film Festival.
In December 2010, Firth was guest editor on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, during which he commissioned research to scan the brains of politicians to see if there were any differences depending on political leanings. He was then credited as one of four co-authors of an academic paper into human brains, the others being University College London researchers. The results of the study suggested that conservatives have greater amygdala volume and liberals have greater volume in their anterior cingulate cortex.
In 2012, Firth's audiobook recording of Graham Greene's The End of the Affair was released at Audible.com. The production was awarded Audiobook of the Year at the 2013 Audie Awards.
In 2012, he co-founded Raindog Films with British music industry executive and entrepreneur Ged Doherty. its first feature, Eye in the Sky, was released theatrically in April 2016.
Firth has been a long-standing supporter of Survival International, a non-governmental organisation that defends the rights of tribal peoples. Speaking in 2001, he said, "My interest in tribal peoples goes back many years... and I have supported [Survival] ever since." In 2003, during the promotion of the film Love Actually, he spoke in defence of the tribal people of Botswana, condemning the Botswana government's eviction of the Gana and Gwi people (San) from the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. He says of the San, "These people are not the remnants of a past era who need to be brought up to date. Those who are able to continue to live on the land that is rightfully theirs are facing the 21st century with a confidence that many of us in the so-called developed world can only envy." He has also backed a Survival International campaign to press the Brazilian government to take more decisive action in defence of the Awá-Guajá people, whose land and livelihood is critically threatened by the actions of loggers.
As a supporter of the Refugee Council, Firth was involved in a campaign to stop the deportation of a group of 42 Congolese asylum seekers, expressing concerns in open letters to The Independent and The Guardian that they faced being murdered on their return to the Democratic Republic of Congo. Firth said: "To me, it's just basic civilisation to help people. I find this incredibly painful to see how we dismiss the most desperate people in our society. It's easily done. It plays to the tabloids, to the Middle-England xenophobes. It just makes me furious. And all from a government we once had such high hopes for". Four of the asylum seekers were given a last-minute reprieve from deportation.
Firth, along with other celebrities, has been involved in the Oxfam global campaign Make Trade Fair, focusing on trade practices seen as especially unfair to third world producers including dumping, high import tariffs, and labour rights. He has further contributed to this cause by opening (with a few collaborators) an eco-friendly shop in West London, Eco. The shop offers fair trade and eco-friendly goods, as well as expert advice on making spaces more energy efficient. In October 2009, at the London Film Festival, Firth launched a film and political activism website, Brightwide (since decommissioned), along with his wife Livia.
During the 2010 general election, Firth announced his support for the Liberal Democrats, having previously been a Labour supporter, citing asylum and refugees' rights as a key reason for his change in affiliation. In December 2010, Firth publicly dropped his support of the Liberal Democrats, citing their U-turn on tuition fees as one of the key reasons for his disillusionment. He also said that while he no longer supports the Liberal Democrats, he is currently without unaffiliated. Firth appeared in literature to support changing the British electoral system from first-past-the-post to alternative vote for electing members of parliament to the House of Commons in the unsuccessful Alternative Vote referendum in 2011.
In 2009, Firth joined the 10:10 project, supporting the movement calling for people to reduce their carbon footprint. In 2010, Colin endorsed the "Roots & Shoots" education programme in the UK run by the Jane Goodall Institute (UK).
In 1989, Firth began a relationship with Meg Tilly, his co-star in Valmont. They had a son, William Joseph "Will" Firth, in 1990. The family moved to the Lower Mainland of British Columbia, Canada. Firth's acting career slowed down until they broke up in 1994, and he returned to the UK. In 1997, Firth married Italian film producer and director Livia Giuggioli. They have two sons, Luca (born March 2001) and Matteo (born August 2003). The family now live in both Chiswick, London and Umbria, Italy. Firth started to learn Italian when he and Giuggioli began to date and is now fluent in the language.
Firth was awarded an honorary degree on 19 October 2007, from the University of Winchester. On 13 January 2011, he was presented with the 2,429th star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In April 2011, Time magazine included Firth in its list of the world's 100 Most Influential People. Firth was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in the 2011 Birthday Honours for services to drama, and made a Freeman of the City of London on 8 March 2012.
A vocal Brexit opponent, he applied for "dual citizenship (British and Italian)" in 2017 in order to "have the same passports as his wife and children". The Italian interior ministry announced his application had been approved on 22 September 2017.