Seeing “The Favourite” a few days ago, I was so stunned by Olivia Colman’s turn as Queen Anne that I had to go back the next day and see it all over again, checking whether I was right the first time in thinking that this was an extraordinary performance by an extraordinary actress.
It was and more. She plays the overweight monarch (fattened by some thirty pounds for the part) stuffing herself with cake and subservient in both makeup and affairs of state to her close and trusted advisor, Sarah, Duchess of Malborough (Rachel Weisz) before this last’s trouncing by scheming Abigail Hill (Emma Watson). Colman quite simply steals every scene she is in. Whiny, unattractive, her plump face resting on triple chins shaking with tears at the least provocation—such as a minion whom she imagines as daring to look at the royal face—or for her physical agony (Queen Anne suffered from the gout as well as the aftermath of seventeen pregnancies, most of the babies dying either at birth or shortly thereafter). But what the actress conveys forcibly, most of the time by the slightest shift in composure or expression is the confusion, indecision, ambiguity of the life of someone who is both an absolute monarch and a pitiful human being.
This performance, worthy of any number of Oscars, let alone one, made me think about what makes a great actor: I would say it’s the capacity of rare individuals, male as well as female, to disappear entirely in their character. Others, who may be fascinating in their part and excellent thespians on the whole, remain before our eyes. Meryl Streep is always Meryl Streep, Angelina Jolie does not let us forget who she is, while Al Pacino or Viggo Mortensen become their character. Most of the Brits totally do as well, think Judy Dench, Helen Mirren, Anthony Hopkins. And of course Olivia Colman.