The Greatness of Peter Firth

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One of the consequences of American movies and television's obsession with a small pool of theoretically bankable stars is that we rarely get a chance to see a lot of excellent, lesser-known American actors, much less the huge pool of terrific British actors that folks in the UK get to see all the time, unless, like Helen Mirren, they somehow break through. Currently, the actor I'm envying Britain for most is Peter Firth.

I started watching Firth in Spooks, where he plays, with astonishing verve, Harry Pearce, the head of MI5's counterterrorism division. Harry is one of the great bureaucratic heroes of modern screen, large or small. He's clearly capable in the field, but he's a brilliant in-fighter over resources and control. He's funny, and tough, fiercely committed to the integrity of his operations and committed to his operatives and their success and development. The show takes its time with him, and Harry's a wonderfully complex character. Firth reveals him, bit by bit. There isn't a lot of rush, there's the typical British denialism and the hurt of restraint. It's a lovely long-term performance.

And it's very entertaining to see a much younger Firth playing a much younger man, Henry Tildney, in the 1987 screen adaptation of Northanger Abbey. Tildney's in a number of ways, a typical Austen hero: he's sensible, he likes to read, he's got a younger sister to whom he's much devoted. If he weren't a funny character, somewhat gregarious in his wisdom, Firth would be setting a precedent for Colin Firth's (no relation) performance as Mr. Darcy eight years later. Instead, he's lit up, smiling in a way he doesn't really get a chance to do as Pearce. If he was an American actor, I'd probably have known that range, but because he's British and works mostly in the UK, I had no idea. It's a pleasure to be able to discover him know. I only regret that it took me so long to find him.
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Alyssa Rosenberg is a culture writer with The Washington Post.

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