James Wilby is two years older than Colin Firth, but odds are you don't know his name or even his face. Even his Wikipedia entry lacks a photo. So off we go to IMDB. I fell for him in Tale of Two Cities in which he played the tragic Sydney Carton with just the right level of sarcasm and self-loathing. So I sought him out which was hard the pre-Internet era. Le Video saved me!
For a while Wilby and Firth had the same sort of career. They starred in Dutch Girls together but Wilby was already typecast as the preppy jerk. They both did a series of small British movies, playing emotionally repressed men.
Wilby starred in Maurice, in which he plays a young man desperately trying to suppress his homosexuality, only to have Hugh Grant's character undermine his resolve and self-confidence. Ultimately he finds self-fulfillment and true love with a better man (in Canada!).
Firth starred in Apartment Zero, playing an emotional cripple who rents a room to a possible serial killer. He was also a shell-shocked WWI vet restoring an old mural in A Month in the Country. Both actors seemed stuck period pieces.
A Series of Prigs
Unfortunately for Wilby's fans, he has never gotten another role as cool as Sydney Carton. He usually plays upper-crust men who are either weak or rigid. A Handful of Dust is especially painful, given his character grows a spine towards the end of the movie and it all ends badly in the Amazon jungle, thanks to Evelyn Waugh's mean-spirited humor. He's plain fussy in Howard's End and Gosford Park and creepy as the crippled husband in Lady Chatterley's Lover.
Colin Firth has played plenty of cads, but his smoldering Mr. Darcy and his lovelorn Mark Darcy in the Bridget Jones films overshadowed his earlier roles. He muddled through some American films, carried a sword in The Last Legion, but he finally revived career playing a man grieving for his partner in A Single Man. This year he was triumphant as King George VI in The King's Speech, a role for which he won almost every acting award available.
James Wilby also played King George VI in the charming BBC television film Bertie and Elizabeth. It's difficult to compare the performances; it's a different kind of movie, more about his relationship with his family and his wife, but he finally gets to play a really good man who isn't a loser, so it's a win for his fans.
Wilby's next big project is a Titanic mini-series in which he probably plays a White Star Line company man who insists that third class passengers don't really need lifeboats since the ship will never sink.
It would be lovely to see him break out of type now that he's fifty-two. He's played a few modern-day roles on television, but rarely in a movie. He'd be good as the civil-servant lover in Little Bee and he could wear jeans! Or he could pair up with a good director like Stephen Frears, Danny Boyle, or even Tom Ford if he chooses to direct another movie. Colin Firth proved you only need a few good roles to get to Oscar night.
Cynthia R. sometimes wishes her favorite actors would take her advice even though she knows absolutely nothing about the movie industry.