Top 10 Movie Performances of Olivia Colman: The Gummy Giggle Shines Through!
“It’s genuinely quite stressful. This is hilarious. I got an Oscar! Okay, I have to thank lots of people. If, by the way, I forget anybody, I’m going to find you later and give you a massive snog…And to be in this category with these extraordinary women and Glenn Close, you’ve been my idol for so long, and this is not how I wanted it to be and I think you’re amazing, and I love you very much…Lindy King, my agent who took me on over 20 years ago, thank you so much…And my mum and my dad, well, you know. My kids, who are at home and watching…And any little girl who’s practicing her speech on the telly, you never know. I used to be a cleaner, and I loved that job, but I did spend quite a lot of my time imagining this…”
Well, this is not it. That evening, the Academy witnessed a woman of 49 sob her way so confused and funnily to the stage and deliver the best Oscar Speech of that evening, the above excerpts of which are my favorite parts. That’s her, Olivia Colman, the jewel that doesn’t know its glory. I’m glad that the Oscar Speech that she practiced as a cleaner somewhere 20 years ago had turned into a living, breathing reality. It almost felt like I had won. And it is true! For every time an actor wins, Hope wins, and in that, we win. This speech never gets old, no matter how many times I watch it. Ah! I break into tears, looking at a woman alien to vanity.
Her glorious career has given us the opportunity to see her in so many different shades, and yet, what remains constant are her silly jokes and that gummy giggle that is way too adorable to forget. She is different and yet the same every time. Her acting prowess shines through every time she appears before us in a way that is so organic. It almost seems like she is the person that she is portraying, even if we remove the camera from her face. In every character she has played, she has gifted something of hers and taken something from it. These footprints that her characters have left on her are visible all over, and she flaunts them like a soldier flaunts her scar.
The following is an evergreen list of some of my favorite performances of Olivia Colman, the actor that I so admire and the person that I love. In the end, just look into the mirror after you finish watching any of her films… you’ll find her gummy giggle on your face. It is her gift to you.
10. Locke (2013)
A few minutes into the film, a voice hits us like a wailing wave. It is a familiar one; it is her, Olivia Colman, as Bethan. In the words of Michael Chion, she is an acousmatic being (a voice without revealing the face), much like all other voices of the film. However, what is striking about her is how she happens to have no such concrete association with the central character, Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy), like the others. Bethan does not have a relationship with him that could be demarcated, articulated, or named in any way possible. Yet, she becomes the wind driving Locke apart from all of his associations that had a name. In a span of an hour, Bethan’s helpless voice made Locke renounce his work, his family, and his home. Her nameless relationship with him is, in fact, the crux of the film.
We do not know what is good or bad. But we do know that Bethan is a simple woman with not much practicality in her decisions or her way of dealing with things. She got unexpectedly pregnant and clearly did not want to have any other reason to live other than the baby that would remind her of Locke. She is seething for love, and we can hear it in her laughter that she is lonely. It gets highly suffocating at moments once we see the repercussions of her decision to have the baby in Locke’s life, and yet our empathy goes with her.
Colman, being herself, does what she does best: speaks through silence even when we do not see her face. She fills the pauses and the gaps she takes in between words to say something more, something about her story, something beyond what could be heard. Colman is a gem when it comes to telling untold stories. You can hear them if you lay the ears.
9. Murder on the Orient Express (2017)
Mystery rolls gales of chilling air all through the Orient Express as Hercules Poirot, a Belgian man who happens to be the best detective in the world, boards the train and is compelled to solve a murder mystery. Almost half an hour of the film passes by as we wait for the other characters to appear one after another. Right when we are least expecting any more quaint additions to the passenger crew, we see her! Olivia Colman as Hildegard Schmidt, a subdued woman who hardly ever opens her mouth to speak other than responding in affirmative to her lady, Princess Dragomiroff, played by Judy Dench. Mostly remaining silent, Colman, under the skin of Schmidt, speaks through her eyes.
When we look into them right from the moment she enters the screen, we know there is an ocean inside her that is waiting to flow out. Being a subdued woman clearly comes at a cost as we witness how Schmidt fails to be the actor that Colman is…in essence, she ends up disclosing fumes of a probable mystery with her eyes. In fact, the initial addresses to her as “Florence” also comes to be busted completely as Detective Poirot finds out her name “Hildegard” from the alphabet “H.”
Colman, as usual, is a master when it comes to breathing in an air of truth and believability to her characters. She succeeds in bringing about the gullibility that is expected out of Hildegard. How can you not be a lead and yet draw attention to yourself in the middle of a star cast? I think Olivia Colman is a testament to the love an actor could receive despite not being the leading lady for most of her professional life. As mystery brews and things go haywire, we notice how she resorts to crime while still being innocent. Indeed, Colman is capable of screaming with her silence.
8. Hot Fuzz (2007)
“Nothing like a bit of girl on girl!” will get you going. Hot Fuzz (2007) has its share of fun and sordid bits, but if we are to consider the “girl-on-girl” bit, Olivia Colman is in her element as Doris Thatcher. She has the same hearty giggle, the same candy-floss girl energy, and yet she manages to be so annoying for over half of the film. It is truly unbelievable how Colman tweezes the traits of her characters a bit on and off in every movie that a mindless watch could almost make us believe that she is doing the same thing in every film. And yes! She is doing the same thing, but her mindful tweezing of the elements cumulatively adds up to a different character every time despite similar personality traits.
A pair of raised eyebrows in a streak of laughter full of wonder is sure to appear multiple times on screen when we know it is Colman we are looking at, but Doris’ eyebrow raise is to make you want to shut her up, unlike that of Sam’s in Cuban Fury (2014). You are not necessarily sexist in wanting to do so because she is genuinely carved as a brainwashed, clumsy woman who isn’t even quite aware of sexism, in general.
Well, it does lure me into talking about why such a character is necessary in the first place and why she is the only woman in the police force, but for convenience, I would instead look at it as a comic addition to the ever-so-masculine script. Needless to say, her efficient strike on a female attacker does somehow come to prove why a sexist build-up was necessary in the first place. Colman, being Colman, never fails to put a smile as she grabs the “girl on girl” deal.
7. Cuban Fury (2014)
Hold your breath and watch out as Sam is here to salsa her way to your heart and remain there. She will sweep you off with her tangy warmth that you never knew you wanted. Filled with warm and cool tones in her character, Olivia Colman is as refreshing as the cocktails she is shown to brew in the bar. An absolute wingwoman, a sweetheart, and the best sister in the world, what more could we ask for? We know the film is more about Bruce than it is about Sam, but well, Colman owns the screen whenever she is out there. She surely is in her yard; funny, chirpy, weird, and outlandish, we never miss a smile when she appears. As an avid Olivia Colman admirer, I know the acting part of her performance in the film surely must have been a cakewalk for her.
But…she’s here with something more (much as always)! She is to swoon you over with some dazzling salsa moves. You cannot miss out on the beautiful sight she is to put up as she pairs up with Nick Frost in the film’s final moments. The heart, the passion, and her ear-to-ear smile, what could be a better treat to the eye? She stepped onto an unknown arena and effortlessly made it her own.
Many times, it almost felt like she was playing herself. Her quirky charm is infectious. As her dancing fervor comes to be foregrounded more than her acting, we know the effort and the heart she put into breathing truth to Sam as she breaks out in contagious giggles, sharing with an interviewer, “This is the first time I have been paid to do something else.” Tune in to Cuban Fury (2014) on a bad day, and you will not regret it.
6. The Iron Lady (2011)
We are all aware of and outrightly normalize a motherly sacrifice. How many of us are actually ready to strike up a conversation on the sacrifice made by daughters? Are we that aware? Between the mother and the daughter, the former always seems to assume a higher position to sacrifice than the latter. Well, meet Carol Thatcher then, a fish out of water. She looks like the ugly duckling left behind somewhere, with the only difference being that we keep waiting for her metamorphosis. Or maybe she is in the middle of it; we never know. In an offbeat prosthetic makeup, Colman appears unfamiliar, just like Meryl Streep as Margret Thatcher. However, her distinct voice and her mannerisms help us recognize her.
She is an empath, yet again. Little weird and clumsy as it might seem, she is rightfully given to mundane and material instincts. She likes to dress her mother up and feels satisfied if her mother wants her to tie a necklace for her, make her hair, or take her to the doctor. She gets into petty brawls with cab drivers and even becomes annoying because of her trait of caring too much. Well, rightfully so! To have a mother as indomitable and invincible in spirit as Margaret Thatcher, she understood her assignment to be the anchor for her mother that draws her home (of course, alongside her father).
Olivia Colman is efficient in her approach to bring out the sacrificial element in her as she becomes the “ward that stayed,” unlike her brother. When all chaos gets settled, we would always see Colman emerge from the cloud of dust, picking up her empathetic character from where it left the screen. She surely has mastered empathy alongside comedy. Colman makes us ask, “Who is the Iron Lady?” Is it not the lady who helped pick up the “Iron Lady” herself?
5. The Lobster (2015)
“In a mad world, only the mad are sane.” What’s madder than a world bereft of the freedom of choice? Olivia Colman, the leading lady of the Hotel, is the epitome of this madness. With ease, we witness her sliding into the cloak of a practical zombie with a straight face and no more than basic animal instincts to embrace and propagate. The Hotel is a world full of people immigrating from the “normal” world outside, and it is the Hotel Manager with her partner who stands as a link between the outer and the inner world of the Hotel.
She had a long white face, utterly devoid of expressions, and so was her body. Everything seems plastic. Everything seems to be a replica of the world outside, a world with choices, yet everything falls back on her, the Hotel Manager, the tyrant. Every single day, as she propagated forming couples and how it had its pros, she tried to balance it out with apparently “normal” deeds such as singing a song with her partner and asking everybody to dance.
Is she even human? We wonder, owing to her absolute indifference to brutal killings and downrightly normalizing looting of the hotel residents, of their basic right to survive the way they want to. Nevertheless, she is absolutely unapologetic. And why not? She is the boss of the mad world. Strange how the same Olivia Colman, who cannot help but feel every single emotion in all her films, lays bare a stone-cold heart with so much conviction. She is ready to transform anyone into an animal without an ounce of regret. What is so brutal about her? We wonder. Her calmness or her madness?
4. The Lost Daughter (2021)
The motherly instinct lays bare as wallpaper all over the film, but it isn’t as easy. It’s Olivia Colman, after all, that we are talking about. Given a gush of varied emotions, both positive and negative, our leading lady, Leda, is an isolated professor. At moments, she enjoys this isolation, while at other times, she stays still like a corpse hit by a sudden bullet of grief. Her mood, led by her subconscious, is a chaotic mixture of love and guilt.
She is indulgent and yet practices restraint at the same time. It is about time we admit how Colman is known for her masterful portrayal of human dilemmas; no matter the film or the character, she is always multifaceted. She is more than what is being shown, feels more than what could be felt, and, in return, makes us experience the inexplicable. It is only when we look at her that we realize that ‘words’ are so futile and restrictive.
Throughout the film, we wonder what happened to her daughters. What is it that led her to set sail on this journey? What is it that connected her to Nina (Dakota Johnson)? She gives out mixed signals, striking up a multitude of questions that she never wants to solve. We notice her reminiscing about her days of youth when she had recently turned mother of two daughters. She doesn’t seem to enjoy that as much as she likes academia.
Well, that does make it somewhat less blurry as to why she keeps breaking down when she looks at Nina’s daughter and even takes her doll away. However, we do see her attending a call in the end addressing her daughter. Who is the Lost Daughter, then? Colman, as Leda leaves us to interpret whether the title talks about her daughters, or herself or the doll (both hers and Nina’s child’s) that stands as a metaphor to the daughters, for in the end, all seem one like the water of the ocean and the sky above.
3. The Father (2020)
The calm before the storm, Anne is the epitome of stillness in chaos. Her empathetic, balanced personality is worn and imbibed to perfection by Olivia Colman, a short-haired woman stuck up in the mazy stairway of her father’s subconscious. It is true that the narrative urges us to take a seat and consider Anthony Hopkins’ Point-of-View as ours (as made evident by the strange mixing of characters, their faces, and names).
But Colman draws our empathetic heart to herself with her honesty and her resilience to being Anne and sticking by her father even when he seems to not recognize her. After the whirling gale of unstable chaos that Colman stood for as Queen Anne in The Favourite (2018), Anne of The Father (2020) is a warm breeze, a breeze that is too aware of its short-lived nature, a breeze that is sure of its end. In the middle of the stark father-daughter relationship that the film takes up, Anne emerges as an individual, almost like an individual barely escaping a tornado.
Anne’s stillness is jittering on occasions when we realize that it has been her throughout all those moments Anthony (and we) could not recognize her as she appears with a different face. We are left speechless when we stumble upon the thought that not only are we stuck in a maze that Anthony’s subconscious lays bare for us, but the maze consists of strands of reality that our conscious mind tries to enmesh us in every time.
We die to strike an equilibrium, but alas! Anne makes our pain even worse. Staggering as it gets towards the end when, Anthony experiences what I would call “The Oedipal Pull”; the father becomes the son, the daughter becomes the mother. “Who exactly am I?” Anthony asks; we are rather left with, “Who exactly is Anne?”
2. Tyrannosaur (2011)
A highly intense character with a battered soul and a patient smile on her face, Hannah has got the best out of Olivia Colman. She seems to be an amalgamation of all the characters she has played across her career: an empath, a killer, a soul tired of her sense of being, a bubbly woman excited to bring change, everything all at once. That’s her for all of us. That’s also Life, I assume. However, Hannah is a warrior. She reminds me of all those times I have had a breakdown and had to wipe my tears off, cheer my voice up, and happily respond to someone at work or even to my parents.
Her burden of existence has been more than relatable. She is an irony in herself, like most of our mothers. She prays and prays and yet doesn’t realize that the biggest prayer she needs to say is for herself. We sail through the film with a heavy heart and witness how she switches from being a corpse to a woman full of vitality and hope, all in the same moment. Are her smiles and warm greetings mere pretense? I bet not. That’s her respite from the tears. That’s the mark of her strength, even in weakness.
The stars, for me, are all those moments Olivia Colman as Hannah decides to lash out and let out the lava inside her like a volcanic eruption. Her sobs, pauses, and continuations never seem calculated. The abrupt static moments in between feats of intense emotions seem guided by none but Colman’s own subconscious that comes to be gifted to Hannah. What is acting if not this? What is a great actor if not one that is fearless? She gives a new meaning to the title of the film. After two separate connotations of “Tyrannosaur,” of which one is obviously Joseph’s (Peter Mullan) first wife and the other Joseph himself, Hannah comes to hold a third meaning; her warm footsteps seem etched in Joseph’s heart. Isn’t that “Tyrannosaurian” enough?
1. The Favourite (2018)
A gorgeous, royal mess, if you ask me? She is bold and tired, angry and forgetful, serious and funny all at once. What are these, if not the traits that define Queen Anne in The Favourite (2018) and Olivia Colman as an actor. She is known to crack a silly joke right after holding a grumpy face for the longest time. We are the ones lucky to be witnessing both, for she is a storm when it comes to breaking down on screen; one that will remind you of the last thing that ripped your heart off right after which she is to make you laugh your tears out just like an old school friend that you terribly miss.
As for The Favourite (2018), she plays a rather complex role while gifting familiar traits to the character. A helpless queen who has had enough of life throwing stones at her. She seeks love, and love is all that she needs. She is even ready to renounce power if she gets the love she wants.
“Yorgos, my best director and the best film, and with Emma and Rachel, the two loveliest women in the world to fall in love with and to go to work with every day…” This line from Colman’s Oscar speech after being declared “Best Actress in a Leading Role” rings a bell every time I watch her opening up as Queen Anne on screen and the ease with which she gifts this character her own journey, tears, and helplessness. Her passionate and yet innocent chemistry with the two women shines through.
She isn’t afraid to look devastated, vulnerable, and disgusting in moments when Queen Anne is at her worst in the film. Colman skillfully captures all of Queen Anne’s insecurities to the point where she feels like a burden, even to herself. It’s weird how we all seem to know how badly we are being manipulated by someone we love, and yet we give in every second of our lives till we destroy ourselves. Doesn’t Colman’s voluptuous yet devastated appearance remind us of all those times we wanted to take charge but couldn’t? It’s a life that becomes so heavy that we can’t even become our own ‘Favourite,’ so we choose someone just to make us remember ourselves, a part of us we have forgotten. Queen Anne shouldn’t be, but it ends up being all of us, thanks to Olivia Colman.
“I am just an actor- All I do is memorize someone else’s words and tart around.” Her craft shines through because nowhere can you say she is lying when playing someone else. When we think of Olivia Colman, we think of sunshine on our shoulders, and we bloom like sunflowers. She is the epitome of comfort, even in chaos. Watch her when you feel sad, powerful, or even nervous; her characters are there to give you a hand. “You’re not the only one,” they say. You can see it in their eyes and feel it in their voice. They have it all; they are one of you. They are YOU.