Editor’s Note: Kate Maltby is a broadcaster and columnist in the United Kingdom on issues of culture and politics, and a theater critic for The Guardian. She is also completing a doctorate in Renaissance literature. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
It’s been a difficult week in Britain. The Brexit mess deepened, the auto industry shed more jobs, and both major political parties saw significant splits, as liberal centrists within them left to form a new group.
Yet hope is on the horizon. At long last, we have a true queen, acclaimed in Britain, with a shot at global domination. She’s not Elizabeth Windsor; she’s not even Meghan Markle. I’m talking, of course, about Olivia Colman, winner of last week’s Best Actress BAFTA and up for Best Actress in a Leading Role this Sunday at the Oscars.
Many American readers will never have heard of Colman before this Oscar season. But in the UK, she is beloved. You’ll have a good sense of why if you watch her nominated turn in Yorgos Lanthimos’ “The Favourite,” as a miserable, miscarriage-riven Queen Anne, shifting from one intense relationship, with Rachel Weisz’s Sarah Churchill, who dominates her with a possessive love, to Emma Stone’s Abigail Hill, who cynically flatters her.
This version of Queen Anne is chronically insecure; she’s also addicted to hot chocolate and capable of childlike glee (“Oh, it is fun to be queen sometimes!”, she squeaks, as she officiates over a spontaneous and advantageous midnight marriage for Abigail, much as you or I might preside over an impromptu midnight feast). In other words, she’s what any of us might become, were we just a bit more indulged.
Colman has made a career out of playing unattractive characters in unattractive worlds. That includes in the physical sense – which is not to say she’s physically unattractive, but she’s refreshingly unbothered about finding her best angles or taking roles with glam makeover budgets. Many of her roles have explored, subtly and lightly, the relationship between women’s bodies, our social status, and our well-being.
In “The Favourite,” Anne may hold the political power of a monarch, but inhabiting a disabled and obese frame, she is enthralled by the slimmer, athletic bodies of Sarah and Abigail. Being queen can’t stop her physical insecurities. “I heard the word fat! Fat and ugly,” she weeps at one point. (“Anne, no one but me would dare and I did not,” replies Weisz’s ever-poised Sarah.)
In the cult sitcom “Peep Show,” Colman played Sophie, first a love interest and then a frequent target for mockery by the two show’s male leads, Mark and Jeremy. She arrived in the show’s first episode as Mark’s unobtainable office crush, well-made up and charming. As the seasons continued, she was revealed to be lazy, gratingly tactless and increasingly embittered, as her relationship with Mark rose and fell through the highs of consummation, a plateau of toleration born of mutual desperation and eventually to the post-divorce lows of recriminatory co-parenting.
And so her physical appearance deteriorated too. Her blonde highlights disappeared, her clothes became baggier, even her front teeth seemed to become more prominent, as Colman shifted the character’s posture. And yet, like most of us, all she wanted was to be loved.
Because at the heart of Colman’s characters, there is always a deep vulnerability. British audiences laughed at Sophie’s awfulness throughout “Peep Show,” but when Mark tried to leave her on their wedding day, our hearts bled for her and we despised him.
(“Broadchurch” spoiler alert coming up.) We wept for Colman too, in the TV mini-series “Broadchurch,” when she played a tough policewoman who finds that her husband is the child-killer she’s been hunting. (David Tennant played her cop colleague.) Her characters very rarely get a fair deal out of life. Even, as in “The Favourite,” when they are queens. Yet they’re always oddly likeable. That’s one reason we love her.
Colman’s career bloomed later than some: she was just shy of 30 when she took on her supporting role in “Peep Show.” That may be why we Brits still like to root for her as an underdog, although nowadays she’s clearly not: last year the Radio Times named her the most powerful person in British TV. Next year, she cements that status by taking over Claire Foy’s role in Netflix’ “The Crown.” If you’re watching, expect to see that trademark vulnerability, matched with the shrewdest of observational humor about the British class system.
Probably, Colman’s British fans will be disappointed on Oscar night. Glenn Close is a strong favorite with the bookies, and as primarily a UK TV actress, Colman doesn’t have the track record of work within Hollywood to guarantee name recognition among the Academy’s industry voters.
But here in Britain, we’ll be cheering like mad for a national treasure. Come on Hollywood, take pity on our Brexit-plagued island, and give us this win.