Bridget Jones, Blair Witch – how well do this month's sequels fare?

Two new films set out to recapture the magic of their classic originals. One of them achieves it.

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Bridget Jones’s Diary and The Blair Witch Project opened within 18 months of each other and became landmarks in their ­genres (romcom and horror) before spawning sequels so poor (Bridget Jones: the Edge of Reason and Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2) that they’re no longer spoken about in polite society. Now both franchises are trying to recapture what made the original pictures appealing in the first place.

Bridget (Renée Zellweger) is the producer of a TV current affairs show threatened by the arrival of a young, cocky new boss with a preference for sensationalism. It may seem a bit rich for Bridget to protest about being asked to “celebrate the inane” when the most pressing philosophical matter in her own life is how to reduce the size of her thighs, but the point is taken: the world is moving on and she feels, at 43, old and obsolete. She is also pregnant and unsure whether the father is her work-obsessed ex, the barrister Mark Darcy (Colin Firth), or Jack (Patrick Dempsey), a charming American who has made a fortune using algorithms to predict romantic attraction. Though if Jack really were a big shot, his website wouldn’t look like it was assembled using glue and scissors. Also, it would be an app.

But then the film didn’t splash out on three screenwriters (Bridget’s creator, Helen Fielding, Sacha Baron Cohen’s partner-in-crime Dan Mazer and Emma Thompson, recipient of a Best Screenplay Oscar for Sense and Sensibility) to keep tabs on such trifling matters as realism. It aims instead for as many versions as possible of that particular kind of embarrassment that the Bridget Jones films have made their own. Namely, when someone (usually Bridget) says the wrong thing in a public situation, or the right thing to the wrong person – such as Bridget’s mother (played by Gemma Jones) blurting out the phrase “three-way” at a blue-rinse electoral meeting; or Bridget making visible her entire internet search history at a business conference.

More inventive examples include two scenes of ventriloquised comedy (one inadvertent, the other deliberate) in which Bridget transmits to her presenter, Miranda (the funny, feisty Sarah Solemani), inappropriate questions for the guest she is interviewing. This taps in to that very British fear of people discovering what we really think and feel. Bridget’s father (Jim Broadbent) offers sage advice (“You can’t go too wrong telling the truth”) and in court Mark defends an outspoken, punk-feminist outfit modelled on Pussy Riot. He fights, in other words, for their right to say the wrong thing.

For all that the film urges its characters to drop their guard, repression is not so easily dispelled. When Bridget goes into labour, neither of the potential fathers seems perturbed to be shooed into the corridor by the haughty-but-tender doctor (Thompson), who tells them: “I’ll handle it from here.” Intimacy is all very well, but there have to be limits, and the idea of men in the delivery room lies as far outside them here as it did in the Doctor comedies of the Fifties. Still, the film darts along cheerfully enough. Shot with no particular finesse, it is often ungainly but rarely unappealing. Rather like Bridget, in fact.

Blair Witch fares less well. It purports to have been assembled from footage discovered in the Black Hills Forest in Maryland, where James (James Allen McCune) and his pals have gone looking for his sister, Heather, who vanished 20 years earlier while making a documentary about the Blair Witch.

In The Blair Witch Project, there was only one camera, which increased the claustrophobia. Now there are six, worn in the ear like Bluetooth devices, as well as a drone. Despite the technological advances, this is still a “Boo!” movie where things go bump in the night, only now the bumps are louder and recorded from multiple angles. There are knowing jokes about how everyone is a documentary-maker these days, but the horror is diluted by all the cameras and cast members. It switches between so many points of view, we can’t help wondering who has edited this “found” footage – and why their grasp of horror is so slack. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article appears in the 15 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The fall of the golden generation