Olivia Colman’s impressive range as an actress seems to know no bounds. A favorite in the UK for her television work in such sitcoms as “The Office” and “Fleabag,” TV audiences also lauded her for her dramatic performances in “Broadchurch” and “The Night Manager,” as well as more recently with “The Crown” and “Landscapers.” But it has been her estimable work in films that continues to bring her international renown.
With such acclaim from audiences, it was inevitable that awards would begin coming her way. She took home the Oscar for Best Actress for “The Favourite” (2018) and scored an additional Best Supporting Actress nomination for “The Father” (2020). For her work in television, Colman has received four Emmy bids, winning for “The Crown.” She also claimed Golden Globe statues for both TV (“The Night Manager” and “The Crown”) and film (“The Favourite”). She received other Globe and Oscar noms for the 2021 film “The Lost Daughter” and a Globe bid for the 2022 film “Empire of Light.”
So let’s raise a glass and toast Olivia Colman’s best movies by counting down her 16 greatest performances, ranked worst to best.
16. CUBAN FURY (2014)
Director: James Griffiths.
Writer: Jon Brown.
Starring: Nick Frost, Rashida Jones, Chris O’Dowd, Ian McShane, Olivia Colman.
In the romantic comedy “Cuban Fury,” the onscreen sparks are designed to be lit between schlumpy office worker Bruce (Nick Frost) and his new American boss Julia (Rashida Jones). However, the real chemistry that lights up the screen is between Frost and his “Hot Fuzz” co-star Colman, who play a brother and sister who once were a successful dance team but have now gotten rusty with their steps. Bruce desperately needs to learn salsa moves to impress his dancing boss, and it’s the delightful interaction between these two comic pros that gives “Cuban Fury” its biggest laughs as well as its beating heart.
15. RON’S GONE WRONG (2021)
Directors: Sarah Smith, Jean-Philippe-Vine.
Co-Director: Octavio E. Rodriguez.
Voices: Zach Galifianakis, Jack Dylan Grazer, Ed Helms, Olivia Colman, Rob Delaney.
For most of its runtime, “Ron’s Gone Wrong” is an amiable animated feature focusing on Barney, a high school misfit (voiced by Jack Dylan Grazer) and his challenges with computerized technology. However, just when you think you’ve got this film figured out comes a character out of left field that shakes up the entire movie. Some CGI-created monstrosity? No. It’s Barney’s Bulgarian grandmother Donka, voiced by Colman with a joy that brings an extra jolt of energy to Barney’s story. Her delight in recalling her past birthday parties for her grandson — including games like “Poke the Dictator” and “Pin the Tail on the (Live) Goat” –are out-of-left field hilarious with a cultural specificity that’s downright impressive. If there’s ever a sequel, can it be called “Donka’s Gone Wrong,” please?
14. MOTHERING SUNDAY (2022)
Director: Eva Husson.
Writer: Alice Birch.
Starring: Odessa Young, Josh O’Connor, Olivia Colman, Colin Firth, Sope Dirisu, Glenda Jackson.
In Eva Husson’s somber romantic drama of love and loss, Colman plays Clarrie Niven, a wealthy woman who has suffered enormous losses in her family, which leaves Clarrie bitter in her marriage with her unhappy husband Godfrey (Colin Firth). For most of the film, Colman expresses her desperation without words, largely communicating everything we need to know about her character with gestures and facial expressions. All of that builds to a moving monologue about her personal losses to the film’s leading character, her maid Jane (Odessa Young), wishing nothing more for Jane than to be spared the pain that Clarrie has suffered in her own life. It’s a master class in control, delivered by one of acting’s great practitioners.
13. I GIVE IT A YEAR (2013)
Writer/Director: Dan Mazer.
Starring: Rose Byrne, Rafe Spall, Anna Faris, Simon Baker, Stephen Merchant, Minnie Driver, Hason Flemyng, Olivia Colman.
Dan Mazer’s “I Give it a Year” is one of those delightful romantic comedies that the Brits seem to dash off at will. “Borat” co-writer Mazer centers his story on a romantic couple, Nat (Rose Byrne) and Josh (Rafe Spall), who impulsively marry, and the gallery of their eccentric friends, all of whom question the viability of their union. As it turns out, those friends are right, and the couple is soon in search of a marriage counselor. Enter Colman’s Linda, who at first glance seems to have the right temperament and insight to be of enormous help, except for one thing. Linda hates men, which is not great for Josh. Colman utilizes the dry wit that she has often shown on British TV to hilarious effect in this gem of a comic portrait of the wrong person who’s definitely in the wrong job.
12. MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (2017)
Director: Kenneth Branagh.
Writer: Michael Green, based on the novel by Agatha Christie.
Starring: Kenneth Branagh, Penelope Cruz, Judi Dench, Olivia Colman, Willem Dafoe, Michelle Pfeiffer.
Many moviegoers first took notice of Colman in Kenneth Branagh’s 2017 hit remake of Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express” in which she played Hildegarde Schmidt, the taciturn lady’s maid for the imperious Princess Natalia Dragomiroff (Judi Dench), godmother to a young woman whose kidnapping leads to a retaliatory murder on the Orient Express. Colman’s quiet maid, dressed in modest black, is all so “veddy” prim and proper, which immediately suggests that she has something to hide. And she does. Colman wisely plays her cards very close to the vest, revealing certain information only selectively, And in this kind of grand murder mystery, keeping the audience guessing is the very best way to play it.
11. HYDE PARK ON HUDSON (2012)
Director: Roger Michell.
Writer: Richard Nelson.
Starring: Bill Murray, Laura Linney, Samuel West, Olivia Colman, Elizabeth Marvel, Olivia Williams.
Colman is unquestionably most famous for playing queens, whether it’s her Oscar-winning work as Queen Anne in “The Favourite” or her Emmy-winning performance as Queen Elizabeth II in “The Crown.” Most of the attention that “Hyde Park on Hudson” received at the time was for Bill Murray’s performance as President Franklin D. Roosevelt who, along with his mistress Daisy (Laura Linney) greet King George IV (Samuel West) and Queen Elizabeth (Colman) as they visit the Roosevelt home sin search of American aid to help the Brits fight Hitler. Colman’s Elizabeth is far from the jolly “Queen Mum” that many of us grew up with — she knows she has to make nice-nice with the Yanks in order to get the much-needed funds, but she harbors great concerns that the Americans, with their menu of hot dogs and cartoons mocking the British Army, are making fun of them. The manner in which Colman gradually reveals these ambivalent feelings give the film an unexpected bit of resonance.
10. THE IRON LADY (2011)
Director: Phyllida Lloyd.
Writer: Abi Morgan.
Starring: Meryl Streep, Jim Broadbent, Olivia Colman, Anthony Head, Richard E. Grant, Nicholas Farrell.
You could be easily forgiven if you had forgotten/didn’t know that Colman played Carol Thatcher, daughter of the formidable Prime Minister in the 2011 biopic of Margaret Thatcher (Oscar winner Meryl Streep). After all, Colman transformed her familiar face completely, wearing a prosthetic nose and distressed blonde wig, accurately capturing the features of the real-life Carol. But Colman brought far more that resemblance to the role, capturing the burden that is placed on any child who is famous, and in Carol’s case, someone with that much power. Watching her performance today, it’s striking to see Colman’s Carol dealing with her mother’s dementia, foreshadowing Colman’s even better work years later in “The Father.”
9. HOT FUZZ (2007)
Director: Edgar Wright.
Writer: Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg.
Starring: Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Jim Broadbent, Timothy Dalton, Paddy Considine, Bill Nighy, Olivia Colman.
In interviews, Colman has often cited her work in this hit Edgar Wright comedy as a career highlight, and it’s little wonder. British audiences were already accustomed to the bawdy side of Colman via the popular UK sitcom “Peep Show,” but American fans of director Edgar Wright’s work had a delightful introduction to the actress whose character, local policewoman Doris Thatcher, displayed the ability to turn any innocent comment into a leering double entendre. Of course, serious roles for Colman would soon make themselves known, but her gift in selling a joke or outrageous physical comedy — she even knocks out an attacker with a “Wet Floor” sign — is one that has endeared her over the years to fans of great British comedy.
8. LOCKE (2013)
Writer/Director: Steven Knight.
Starring: Tom Hardy.
Voices: Olivia Colman, Ruth Wilson, Tom Holland, Andrew Scott, Ben Daniels.
As if her skills as an actress, both dramatic and comedic, weren’t enough, Colman has, in recent years, acquired a sterling reputation as a top-tier voice artist as well. In animated films, the voice artist is aided by the visual team in creating a character. But in “Locke,” Colman has only the terrific script by Steven Knight to guide her in creating the character of Bethan Maguire, the unseen mistress of Tom Hardy’s Locke, who is carrying his baby and is about to go into premature labor. Her desperate phone call to Locke as he speedily drives to be by her side is the propelling force of the film, and even though “Locke” is often thought of as a one-man show, Colman’s Bethan provides him with the key relationship in the film, offering her the unique opportunity to provide brilliant support to a film without actually being seen.
7. THE LOBSTER (2016)
Director: Yorgos Lanthimos.
Writers: Efthymis Filippou, Yorgos Lanthimos.
Starring: Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz, John C. Reilly, Olivia Colman, Léa Seydoux, Ben Whishaw.
Colman’s first venture into the wild world of Yorgos Lanthimos was with this dystopian satire, capturing a world in which all single people must find a mate within 45 days or else be turned into the animal of their choice. This bizarre set-up might be a bit much for a movie audience to swallow, but not in the hands of Olivia Colman. As the manager of the hotel where the single candidates must find a mate among them, Colman lays down the ground rules to David (Colin Farrell), the hotel’s latest arrival. She does so in such a matter-of-fact manner — as if this was the most normal thing in the world — that it perfectly capture the unique Lanthimos blend of shock and humor that comes to a remarkable fruition two years later with “The Favourite.”
6. THE MITCHELLS VS. THE MACHINES (2021)
Director: Mike Rianda.
Writer: Mike Rianda, Jeff Lowe.
Voices: Abbi Jacobson, Danny McBride, Maya Rudolph, Mike Rianda, Olivia Colman, Eric André, Fred Armisten, Beck Bennett
If you were casting a voice actor to portray a maniacal AI virtual assistant that orders its army to capture all human beings to send them into space, the choice is obvious. Olivia Colman, right? But if you pair Colman’s renowned vocal dexterity with an intelligently witty script by Mike Rianda and Jeff Rowe, what sounds like a preposterous casting can lead to spectacular results. For her vengeance-filled PAL (a nice variation of “2001’s” mad computer HAL), Colman strikes a hilarious vocal balance between seeming absolutely rational while still being absolutely bonkers. In a year of strong performances by voice artists, Colman’s work in “Mitchells” remains one of the very best.
5. EMPIRE OF LIGHT (2022)
Writer/Director: Sam Mendes. Starring Olivia Colman, Micheal Ward, Colin Firth, Toby Jones, Tom Brooke, Tanya Moodie.
In Sam Mendes’ memory piece “Empire of Light,” Colman takes on the challenging role of Hilary Small, a lonely woman working as a manager of a cinema on the English coast in 1980. The lonely Hilary, who suffers occasional bouts of schizophrenia as well as sexual harassment at the hands of her boss (Colin Firth), has her world turned upside down by the arrival of Stephen (Micheal Ward), a handsome new employee. She falls in love with her Black colleague in hopes that this could offer a promising new direction for her life, but their pairing encounters serious obstacles for both social outcasts. Colman skillfully peels back the layers of Hilary’s complexity with skill and enormous empathy.
4. TYRANNOSAUR (2011)
Writer/Director: Paddy Considine.
Starring: Peter Mullan, Olivia Colman, Eddie Marsan, Paul Poppleman, Sally Carman.
Though by 2011 Colman was primarily known in the UK for her film and television comedies, her considerable dramatic chops were finally displayed to the world in Paddy Considine’s widely-praised debut feature, “Tyrranosaur.” Colman is stunning as Hannah, a Christian store owner who is brutally abused by her husband (Eddie Marsan) and seeks solace in the arms of a customer (Peter Mullan) who may not be able to provide what she needs given his own alcoholic rages. Viewing the nature of toxic masculinity through the eyes of a woman being victimized by the damage it can wreak is one rarely explored and provides the film with a singularly powerful point of view. Colman’s empathetic performance brings us ever closer to Hannah on each step of her emotional journey.
3. THE FATHER (2020)
Director: Florian Zeller.
Writers: Christopher Hampton, Florian Zeller, based on Zeller’s play “Le Père.”
Starring: Anthony Hopkins, Olivia Colman, Rufus Sewell, Olivia Williams, Mark Gatiss.
Colman earned her second Academy Award nomination for her supporting work in Florian Zeller’s film version of his acclaimed play “The Father,” in which she plays Anne, the dedicated caregiver to her father Anthony (Oscar winner Anthony Hopkins) who is slowly drifting away from her into growing dementia. Anne wants to provide her father a sense of normalcy even as she looks into his eyes and realizes that the man she loves is no longer all there. It’s a dilemma with which many filmgoers will identify — that no matter how hard you want to care for a loved one, it simply won’t be enough. In its directness, Colman’s indelible performance profoundly communicates that weight.
2. THE LOST DAUGHTER (2021)
Writer/Director: Maggie Gyllenhaal, based on the novel by Elena Ferrante.
Starring: Olivia Colman, Dakota Johnson, Jessie Buckley, Ed Harris, Peter Sarsgaard, Paul Mescal, Dagmara Domińczyk.
“Children are a crushing responsibility,” Leda (Olivia Colman) warns a pregnant woman in Maggie Gyllenhaal’s debut feature which puts a rare spotlight on women who find motherhood to be a depressing burden. Leda’s ambivalence about being a mother doesn’t make her the most sympathetic of characters, and Colman makes no effort to sugarcoat Leda’s attitudes. But as Colman begins to reveal the emotional complexities with which Leda struggles, the character becomes understandable, and in a weird way, almost relatable. I hesitate to call Colman’s work here a brave performance. Rather, in being true to the character, Colman delivers a performance of enormous artistic integrity. Then again, we would expect nothing less from this actress.
1. THE FAVOURITE (2018)
Director: Yorgos Lanthimos.
Writers: Deborah Davis, Tony McNamara.
Starring: Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz, Emma Stone, Nicholas Hoult, Joe Alwyn, Mark Gatiss.
For most film fans, Colman’s greatest film triumph to date would likely be her Oscar-winning work as Queen Anne in Yorgos Lanthimos’ black comedy “The Favourite.” The character of Queen Anne is initially presented as a buffoon, being manipulated at first by her lover Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz) and later by ambitious newcomer Abigail (Emma Stone). Colman takes her time revealing the many sides of Anne — an imperious ruler, a sensuous lover (particularly with Sarah) and, in the film’s final scenes, a terrifying specter of power. Colman makes these transitions from one facet to another seamlessly, using the many sides of Anne as building blocks to fashion a character that is simultaneously both intimidating and vulnerable.