There's something slightly cheesy about Colin Firth. Not in the flesh, you understand, but in the idea of him. It's something about the way middle England panted in unison when he strode out of that lake in Pride and Prejudice.
"Ooh, Colin," you could hear them whisper, faintly reproachfully. "You are naughty."
Now, I had as big a crush on Mr Darcy as the next gal. I was 14 at the time, and I got over it as quickly as I did strawberry-mint lip gloss. My Mr Darcy served his purpose and was then cast aside - and Timothy Dalton never did it for me again. Ever.
Unlike the erstwhile Bond, Firth's career is easily split into pre- and post-Pride and Prejudice. He started out well. Another Country, Apartment Zero, A Month in the Country, Tumbledown, Valmont: small but interesting projects, with Firth given the chance to develop complex, often troubled characters. Mr Darcy changed all that: suddenly Firth was bankable. He became an actor sought out by the high-end heritage market of the British film industry. But for every English Patient and Shakespeare In Love on his CV, there's a Relative Values or an Importance Of Being Earnest. Bridget Jones's Diary was fun, but What A Girl Wants? Love Actually? What more evidence do I need to muster? Definitely a bit cheesy.
So I wasn't nearly as excited at meeting Firth as perhaps I should have been. Certainly, every female with a pulse to whom I mentioned the interview appeared to go glassy-eyed at the mere sound of his name.
A tall, slim, rather diffident Firth arrives. He's smiling and instantly affable, looking younger than his 43 years but also less substantial than he does on screen. His is a handsome face, but not extraordinarily so. We're in Luxembourg, on the set of Girl With a Pearl Earring, the film version of Tracy Chevalier's bestselling novel. Firth plays the 17th-century Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer, who becomes captivated by the family maid, Griet (played by Scarlett Johansson).
It's a pretty torrid tale: Vermeer and Griet's mutual attraction is repressed beneath the demands of social etiquette; the slightest glance becomes weighted with meaning, the sexual atmosphere building to an almost unbearable intensity.
Plenty of opportunity for Firth to smoulder, then? "Oh, God!" exclaims Firth, aghast. "I hope it doesn't come across like that. I don't consciously smoulder anyway - I never have." He pauses for a wry little grin: "Smouldering is something that's kind of come to me.
"Actually," he adds, not ready to let the subject lie. "It was a bit worrying the other day on set. I was looking at Griet and going through my own process and doing what I thought, you know, was wanted, and afterwards I got a comment about my smouldering look and I just thought, 'Oh, Christ'." He says it more in sadness than in anger, as though really fearful that he is reduced to "one look".
Unfortunately, because Girl With a Pearl Earring is a film of intent rather than action, Firth does vacillate rather between a smoulder and a scowl. His limitations in the emoting department are not helped by the fact that he's up against Johansson, an actress who can say more with her eyes than any page of dialogue.
"Very few actors would decide to take on a role and just do a look," comments Firth, a little dejectedly. "You hope you can be elegant without speaking, and that once the film's cut together, you come out in the wash the way you intended to."
Such concern is emblematic of his lack of arrogance: he seems genuinely surprised and cheered by his good fortune in doing a job he enjoys.
He became an actor, he says, as a last resort. The son of academics, Firth lived in Nigeria until he was four, eventually growing up in Hampshire where he attended the local comprehensive. His posh accent is the product of "old-fashioned drama school RP".
"My father was worried when I decided not to go to university," he recalls, "but only because he wanted me to be able to find something that was stimulating from which I could make a living. I lit on acting because there really wasn't anything else that seemed feasible."
Though he loved what he was doing, the decision preyed on his mind for many years: "I did say to my dad later that I felt like I hadn't fulfilled the family tradition and that I had missed something by not going to university, by not following that path." His father, however, sees it differently: "He told me that, considering all the things I've learnt for various roles, I haven't missed out on much."
It soon becomes clear that for Firth, it's the research that really gives him a kick: "I enjoy the homework very much," he says with a slightly embarrassed guffaw.
Girl With a Pearl Earring has certainly delivered for him on that front: "It's allowed me to go to school, in a way," he shrugs. "I like going to the galleries and pretending to be this bloke. That thrills me."
The bloke himself remains an enigma: "Here's a guy we basically don't know anything about, whom Tracy has written a story about. And this story is told through the eyes of a girl who doesn't know much about him either. I think," he says, after pausing for a moment to think, "that what Tracy has done brilliantly, and what the production has done so far, is to keep that mystery intact. I just hope I can continue to do the same in my leg of the relay."
He rubs the side of his face, crosses his legs and frowns: "Vermeer's only hint at a self-portrait is in a mirror," he ponders. "It's in the background of - I think it's called The Concert [in fact it's The Music Lesson]." He shakes his head and shrugs: "The titles are all so interchangeable... But anyway, it's basically two people standing at a virginal at the back of a room, and there's a mirror above the instrument which reflects [the player's] face and then if you look further you can see the leg of his easel..."
He stops and pulls a sheepish face: "I've never quite been able to make it out myself, to be honest, so I'm just going on what others say. But there seems to be some kind of box and his foot - so he's quite consciously hinted at himself, but kept himself out of it."
As he prattles on happily, I realise that the great sex symbol of the Home Counties is, in fact, a big kid, eyes still wide with wonder at the world. Even that laugh, with its throat-tickling rumble, belongs to a boy.
I tune back in, and find that Firth has moved on to the known facts he has unearthed about Vermeer: "He had 15 children, four of whom died. There were wars going on - the French invaded, and the dykes were broken in a kind of scorched earth policy. He grew up in a pub that his mother ran..." He leans back in his chair to deliver what is clearly his favourite piece of Dutch miscellany: "The annual beer consumption in Delft was absolutely jaw-dropping!"
We pause in respect for the constitution of the apparently permanently pickled locals before returning to art. Specifically, Firth's lack of aptitude for it: "The physical side of painting is beyond me," he proffers. "You can't teach me to draw a face with two eyes in the right place. All I'm hoping for is to look as if I've picked up a palette before and to hold a paintbrush without dropping it."
He won't be drawn on how he thinks the film is going. "I'm hopeless at predicting that kind of thing - I was the one who thought Shakespeare In Love couldn't work, which shows how strong my instincts are. I just thought: 'there have been so many star-studded flops,' and my worry was that it would be panto for clever clogs."
As for his own part in it, he starts to giggle: "I was the absolute antithesis of everything that was charming about that film - the guy with no humour, no poetry and no romance. The beauty of the film," he declaims in cod-Shakespearean, "was thrown into relief by my lack of it."
He's less happy-go-lucky when, inevitably, we find ourselves having a Mr Darcy moment. "You know, this whole star persona nonsense that came from Pride and Prejudice is not something I actually occupy, and I only ever have to answer for it in a press situation."
He lets out a sigh. "When the question is asked, I often have to wake myself up to remember what to say about Mr Darcy. I can't recall it very well, not least because it was a very ordinary working experience. I've had to talk about it so much, I can no longer distinguish my own memories from other people's mythology about it."
He does remember thinking it wouldn't be up to much: "I went to South America [to film Nostromo]. I thought it would be nice to be away when everyone was having a go at it."
He didn't pay much more attention when he got a call from home saying he was the subject of some intense press interest: "I just thought it was the sort of thing that mums say."
Meanwhile, on the set of Nostromo, Firth fell in love with an Italian, Livia Guiggioli (they are now married). Intrigued by reports of Firth from England, her family went to check him out at the cinema. "The only thing that was on at the time was Circle of Friends," he grimaces. "And appealing in that I am not. They were in despair at this ghastly, bloated, moustachioed English fool. Then, when they were sent tapes of Pride and Prejudice, there was a general kind of disbelief that anyone could find this man sexy." Firth himself remained unconvinced until his mum sent him a recording of a radio discussion about the series: "I thought, 'Christ! This has never happened before, this is extraordinary.'"
He leans forward to add sincerely: "It can make you a bit jittery." He continues, sounding as though he still can't quite fathom it: "The interesting thing was that I thought I'd been doing great up until that point. I'd been doing stuff that I found really interesting. I'd been working away - had never been out of work, actually. I was doing central roles in things that interested me a lot and were sometimes well received. If people liked me, they liked me and if they didn't they didn't. And then, with Pride and Prejudice, it was as if I'd never done a thing before."
Or since? I prompt: "Well," he shrugs, resigned, "if people want to bang on about it eight years on, if they're still interested, I can't really complain."
He has, of course, had a hand in inspiring such longevity himself, by starring as Mark Darcy in Bridget Jones's Diary and its forthcoming sequel.
"I know," he shrugsapologetically. "The first one just seemed such fun, but I was worried about a sequel. The very idea conjures up all sorts of dreadful thoughts. But I read the script and found a new affinity with it, so..." he trails off. "Nevertheless," he picks up, with a shake of the head, "I have to say I find it weird that there is this hologram of me as Mr Darcy still wandering about."
The notion reminds me of something Firth told me about the moment he saw his first original Vermeer: "I don't know if I've ever seen such a difference between reproduction and the real thing. Even in print, you can see they're marvellous, but nothing compares to coming face to face with one."
Firth may not be a great work of art, but he's certainly nothing like his image. Neither scrumptious nor cheesy, he's more like a reliably decent pint of beer. Something, it seems, of which Vermeer himself would have approved.
'Girl With a Pearl Earring' is released 16 JanuaryReuse content