I identified Colin Firth as the leading film actor of his generation long before Americans ‘discovered’ him and bequeathed him an Academy Award.
Despite his well-deserved title in the British press as “the thinking woman’s crumpet,” I cherish his acting ability as much as his curly coiffure and fine face. I find his biography of greatest note. This man, who has portrayed intellectuals from the fictional Fitzwilliam Darcy to the historical Johannes Vermeer, never attended university. However, his parents taught, he writes, and his Italian wife holds a PhD. Firth knows something of academic life without the having suffered the jading impact of a career within the institution.
Firth’s ‘Single Man‘ evaded the easy stereotype of the aging gay male academic despite Tom Ford’s dangerous flirtation with fashionable suits from a designer closet. Firth’s sojourn in Genoa similarly plays to academic tropes but ones born of post-modern two-career families not ancient Greek assumptions about who is drawn to a life of the mind. I selected the film for Firth, but Michael Winterbottom’s and Laurence Coriat’s academic screenplay solidified my interest.
Firth again portrays a professor, although we never learn his field. He teaches a seminar with Shakespearean texts on EU and Italian identity in English. Such a pastiche fails to match any tenure-line appointment I’ve ever known at Northwestern, which appears to be his home university, but anything is possible in summer school.
Firth’s character’s family resides Chicago, but not in Hyde Park. His wife, a piano instructor at the same university, died in a car accident on a highway in what could be northern Illinois or Wisconsin. When Firth’s taxi heads for O’Hare, the taxi takes them south on Michigan Avenue.
This fictional faculty family parallels countless factual ones in its structure. Firth’s tenured professor publishes copiously. Hope Davis’ deceased character taught off the tenure line while raising two daughters spaced six years apart to accommodate the American tenure clock. The widower suddenly serves as both parents and falls short. Like Austen’s Darcy, such a man must want wife, and academic women get in line.
Candidate one earned her doctorate a Harvard with the winsome widower. She arranged the sabbatical, but she never wrote the books nor bore the babes to make her a suitable spouse. She can only envy Firth’s progeny on the page and in the flesh.
Candidate two flirts her way through Firth’s seminar as a sexually and intellectually precocious pet pupil. Although too young to be his equal, she retains the potential as professor and parent that candidate one long-since passed.
Like his ‘Single Man,’ Firth’s ‘Summer in Genoa’ ends alone. The ivory tower isolates its inmate yet again.