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A Tale of Two Queens: Only Olivia Colman Could Carry ‘The Favourite’ and ‘The Crown’

If 2019 has proved anything, it’s that this British actress has the range

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No one seems more pleasantly surprised by this current moment of Peak Olivia Colman than Olivia Colman herself. Thanks to the great Moonlight–La La Land mixup of 2017, her Best Actress win earlier this year can’t seriously contend for biggest Oscar upset of the decade, but it’s a close runner-up. After an entire awards season’s worth of accolades for Glenn Close in The Wife, a movie so tailored to Academy voters and so obscure to the general population it spawned an entire running bit on this website’s Oscars Show, the British performer snagged a trophy for her first-ever nomination. She should get another for what happened next.

In less than four minutes, Colman makes a fart noise on the most hallowed stage in cinema, screams “LADY GAGA!” without context or explanation, and briefly marvels, “This is not gonna happen again.” In her ongoing press tour for the upcoming third season of The Crown, Colman has admitted she was “in the bar getting bladdered” for much of the ceremony and can’t remember her own speech, which explains the raspberry. Still, the substance of her shock and gratitude holds up: It’s amazing that a British character actress won a statue for playing a gluttonous, groaning, utterly abject queen.

Colman’s characters in The Favourite, the 2018 Yorgos Lanthimos film honored at this year’s Oscars, and The Crown share both a job description and a family tree. Within those seemingly narrow confines, however, the roles couldn’t be further apart. The Favourite’s Queen Anne is both physically and spiritually weak, corroded from both grief and a toxic bubble of extreme wealth and privilege. The Crown’s Queen Elizabeth, inhabited for the first two seasons by Claire Foy, is a model of English propriety, epitomizing the repression and stiff upper lip that have become stereotypes of her nation’s character. The two portrayals are rooted in two very different attitudes toward the institution of monarchy: The Favourite, contempt for royals’ isolation and glee at the base instincts it brings out in them; The Crown, a mix of awe, curiosity, and sympathy for the residents of Buckingham Palace, tempered though never canceled out by an obligatory dose of skepticism. Colman commits herself to both with equal dedication.

Along with her supporting role as the passive-aggressive Godmother in Fleabag, The Crown and The Favourite form a trifecta of high-profile roles for a previously midprofile star. At no other point in her multidecade career, for example, would Colman be called upon to answer Vogue’s “73 Questions,” a video series best known for walk-and-talk tours of celebrity real estate. Cut to earlier this year, when Colman took Vogue for a stroll around London’s Ritz Hotel. “So I guess life has been kicked up a notch, hasn’t it?” the interviewer jokes. “It’s all right,” she shrugs.

You almost certainly recognize Colman when you come across her in one of these award-winning projects, though from where depends on your taste in British pop cultural imports. If it’s cringe comedy, Colman is forever the coworker turned love interest on Peep Show; if it’s crime, she’s the colead detective on Broadchurch; if it’s espionage thrillers, she’s the intelligence operative in The Night Manager, for which she earned a Golden Globe in 2017. The versatility required for Colman’s 180-degree pivot from one queen to the next won’t shock anyone familiar with the range of her career. All that’s changed is the attention paid to her gifts and the relative flashiness of their showcase.

The Crown is, fittingly, an extended tribute to the qualities that have left Elizabeth herself overlooked despite her constant presence in the public eye. Where the public sees a prudish schoolmarm, writer Peter Morgan sees a woman doing her level best to perform duties—celebrity, leadership—she neither desires nor seems suited to. The Crown even posits that Elizabeth’s restraint and stodginess are net positives, allowing her to not-quite-rule England through a tumultuous half-century with a steady hand. The show is outright derisive toward the queen’s more glamorous, publicity-hungry sister Margaret, played by Vanessa Kirby in the first two seasons and Helena Bonham Carter in the third. Modesty isn’t just a virtue, The Crown insists. It’s good television.

Colman proves well-suited to making this counterintuitive case. Though Foy’s work was excellent throughout, The Crown’s weakest season was its first, forced to play up qualities like novelty and momentousness that were antithetical to its core project: exploring the contradictions of ceremonial monarchy in a rapidly modernizing world. The further The Crown gets into Elizabeth’s reign, the more it becomes the series it was seemingly conceived to be. Like Elizabeth herself, the show becomes a witness to history, now moving into the 1960s and their accompanying upheavals; with its lead decades into her rule, it can move past the awkward transition period and settle into the bizarre routines of palace life. Colman’s comic talents are especially useful here. Like Foy, she nails the clipped, cartoonish diction of the über-posh, but she adds to the impression an understanding of both Elizabeth’s own wry sense of humor, a welcome contrast to the pompous men who surround her, and the character’s more unintentional absurdity. The Crown sometimes struggles to sell, say, the embodiment of archaic aristocracy as a vocal spokesperson for democracy in the face of a potential coup. But Colman understands that petty pastimes like horse breeding and art history lessons are a little silly, even as the pathos of weightier moments is real. There’s no need to choose between making Elizabeth slightly ridiculous and making her a full person.

The Favourite, of course, goes all in on the ridiculous side of the spectrum. Part of the joy in watching Colman perform, and pick up prestigious honors for such a performance, is seeing her cast off all the repression someone like Elizabeth has long since internalized. Anne shovels down cake with gluttonous abandon, screams for her lover with petulant sorrow, and decides important matters of state out of unchecked, jealous rage. There are deeply human reasons for Anne’s wretched condition: If you’d had 17 miscarriages and suffered a lifetime of horrifically painful gout, what use would you have for politesse? But while Anne’s past may explain her monstrosity, Colman never blunts it.

There’s a fun bit of gender reversal to Anne being the center of attention whose needs everyone must cater to, and Colman gaining a significant amount of weight for the role in a classic Important Actor move. (Eat your heart out, Christian Bale!) Yet The Favourite is the furthest thing from a feminist empowerment tale: It’s more about how power corrupts everyone alike, with Colman’s performance its Exhibit A. Surrounded by sycophants, Anne is as miserable as she is bereft of the tools to articulate, let alone solve, her own misery. Colman clearly relishes inhabiting Anne’s arrested development for a rare leading role—a woman stranded at the very top of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

For all Colman’s time in the spotlight, though, she’s still delightful in small doses. The Godmother, the closest thing Fleabag has to a villain after its protagonist’s own self-destruction, is a marvel of small-time malevolence: having Fleabag pose for a portrait with her back to the canvas; constantly bragging about her sex life with Fleabag’s dad; forgetting her own fiancé’s name the day of their wedding—and, oh yeah, marrying the widower of her deceased best friend. Much attention has been paid to the micro-expressions of creator, writer, and star Phoebe Waller-Bridge as she directly addresses the camera, but Colman’s work is just as subtle. Every fake smile, batted eye, and oozing-line delivery becomes an extra twist of the knife, with Colman bringing her voice up half an octave for maximum irritation.

Colman will star in one more season of The Crown before handing Elizabeth off, baton-like, to a third and final actress. After that, history suggests her CV will bend more toward supporting roles like Fleabag than the strange coincidence of these polar-opposite queens. Until then, we can take the opportunity to appreciate Colman’s talents, not to mention the novelty of Hollywood elevating an actress already in her mid-40s. The Crown can get a bad rap for low stakes and lack of conflict. But as with Foy before her, watching Colman work is a justification in itself.