Tag Archives: Olivia Colman

You’ve Got Hate Mail

Wicked Little Letters

by George Wolf

Long before you could hide behind a keyboard and avatar, a small English village was scandalized by some expert-level anonymous trolling. Wicked Little Letters tells us that story is “more true than you’d think,” and rolls out a stellar ensemble to elevate the tale at nearly every turn.

It is the 1920s in Littlehampton, England, where unmarried Edith Swan (Oscar winner Olivia Colman) still lives with her parents (Timothy Spall, Gemma Jones). Edith is known to be a dutiful daughter and devout Christian, so town tongues are wagging when she begins to receive hateful and profanity-laced “poison pen” letters in the mail.

Who could be behind such unwarranted vitriol?

Whaddya bet it’s that filthy Irishwoman Rose Gooding (Oscar nominee Jessie Buckley)?

Rose is frequently loud, drunk and vulgar. Plus, she’s a war widow (or is she?) with a young daughter (Alisha Weir from the upcoming Abigail), a “reputation” and a live-in boyfriend (Malachi Kirby).

Throw in the recent falling-out with Edith, and that’s enough for the town Constables (Hugh Skinner, Paul Chahidi), who arrest Rose and quickly schedule a show trial.

But “Woman Police Officer” Moss (Anjana Vasan) isn’t convinced, and she risks her position by continuing to investigate the letters on her own.

Director Thea Sharrock (Me Before You, The One and Only Ivan) and first-time screenwriter Jonny Sweet don’t craft a “whodunnit” as much as they do a “whoproveit” and a “whydunnit.” The real culprit is revealed fairly early on, and the film tries to balance some British wit atop heavier themes of repression, equality, and the sanctimonious crowd who are all preach no practice.

It’s historically interesting and well-meaning enough, but it reveals Sweet’s TV background through a light and obvious romp that’s rescued by heavyweight talent.

Colman, Buckley and Spall are all customarily splendid, each making up for the lack of nuance in their characters with some livid-in conviction and natural chemistry. Plus, Vasan stands out in the winning supporting group as the overlooked and underestimated W.P.O. Moss.

So while it’s lacking in the bite needed to leave a lasting impression, think of Wicked Little Letters as an extended cat video, one just amusing enough to take your mind off of all those nasty comments from the keyboard warriors.

Candy Man


by Hope Madden

Multiple generations have been simultaneously scarred and entertained by Willy Wonka. Roald Dahl’s book leapt to the screen in 1971, and if we weren’t horrified by four grandparents choosing never to leave a single bed, we were terrified by Wonka or Slugworth or the Oompa Loompas. And if not, we were pretty sure people died on this chocolate factory tour.

And then in 2005, Tim Burton took his shot. There were giant teeth and Christopher Lee, which only added to the trauma.  

You know who can make a Willy Wonka story that isn’t nightmarish? That guy who does the Paddington movies. Yes, Paul King co-writes and directs a delightful, never traumatic tale of young Willy Wonka (Timothée Chalamet) out to find his fortune as a chocolatier.

There is just something about King’s low-key whimsy that sits nicely. Gone is the macabre that haunted the other two Wonka iterations, replaced with a dash of grief and a spoonful of Dickensian working conditions.

Wonka heads to the big city with little more than a hatful of dreams. But he quickly learns that “the greedy beat the needy” as nefarious types take advantage of Willy’s good nature and naïve disposition. From slumlords (Olivia Colman, Tom Davis) to corrupt constables (Keegan-Michael Key, often in an unfortunate fat suit), to the greedy chocolate cartel. Plus there’s a vengeful Oompa Loompa (Hugh Grant) on his tail. But with friends and imagination – and chocolate – things never look too dire.

Wonka is a musical, which is its weakest element. No one sings particularly well, certainly not Chalamet, and the new songs don’t leave an impression. But Chalamet is endlessly charming, and an appealing supporting cast keeps things lively.

King’s visuals are intricate, vibrant and joyous as ever, which is a key ingredient in Wonka’s success. It’s a delight to watch. Though it never reaches the heights of either Paddington film, Wonka delivers family friendly and fun without any of the scarring side effects of the last two efforts.

Sexy Boots

Puss in Boots: The Last Wish

by Hope Madden

Live like there’s no tomorrow. For some, that idea may be freeing. Not for Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas).

Down to the last of his nine lives thanks to his devil-may-care, adventuring lifestyle, the legendary tabby knows fear for the first time. Indeed, it seems to him that death itself stalks his every move.

But just as he’s resigned himself to the life of a housecat, he learns of a wishing star and decides that this one wish is his key to becoming his fearless, legendary self again. Too bad his ex, Kitty Softpaws (Salma Hayek), is also after it. So is narcissistic psychopath and piemaker Jack Horner (John Mulaney), as well as Goldilocks (Florence Pugh) and the three bears (Olivia Colman, Ray Winstone and Samson Kayo).

That’s a killer cast right there. That’s five Academy Award nominations and one Oscar. Sure, most of that is Colman, but still, Puss in Boots: The Last Wish is loaded with talent.

That’s no real surprise from the Shrek franchise or the gang at Dreamworks. What is a surprise is the material these pros have to tear into. Directors Joel Crawford and Januel Mercado capitalize on the talent with a heartfelt, surprisingly mature script from Tommy Swerdlow, Tom Wheeler and Paul Fisher as well as animation that looks better than anything the studio’s put out to date.

Banderas has a blast, as he has since his first appearance as the booted feline in 2004. Not every actor is cut out for voice work, but Banderas excels.

Pugh’s scrappy Goldilocks is a stitch, as is Winstone’s Papa Bear. Colman characteristically delivers a performance that’s equal parts tender, hilarious and heartbreaking. And with just her voice!

The entire cast, including Harvey Guillén as the most resilient chihuahua ever animated, populates this imaginary world with decidedly memorable characters – characters with dimension, 2D be damned.

Puss’s existential crisis drives this imaginative, often hilarious adventure, but it does more than that. It anchors all the derring-do with earnest emotion and recognizable struggle. The film never feels as if it’s winking at its adult audience while dishing out frivolity to youngsters. Instead, somehow the filmmakers bridge that, engaging all ages with an emotionally complex but digestible tale, gorgeously rendered, beautifully acted and shockingly fun.

An Odd Couple in an Even Odder World

Joy Ride

by Christie Robb

A cozy story of mutual self-discovery, director Emer Reynolds and writer Ailbhe Keogan’s Joyride delivers a series of poignant moments but unfortunately not enough of them to result in a believable conclusion.

The excellent Olivia Colman plays Joy, a solicitor that has recently given birth to a late-in-life baby that she wishes to give away to a childhood friend. The delightful Charlie Reid plays Mully, a teenager who has recently lost his mom to cancer and is left with a scumbag dad who wants him to steal money from a hospice fundraiser to clear his debts. Their lives intersect when the two try to use the same stolen taxi.

The transitional nature of a road trip during a transitional period in both of their lives provides the opportunity for each of the two to learn things they never knew about themselves and to grow and mature as individuals. They are doing this while rolling through the Irish countryside, which is quite a pleasurable backdrop.  

The two leads are very talented and their banter is written naturally enough to be believable. However, the plot at times veers into the ridiculous, ignoring so much of the way the actual world works as to leave you wondering if you accidentally got the genre wrong and you are watching a fantasy.

It’s a world in which you can evade the police by simply turning into the first driveway on the side of the road and 13 year-old-boys can function as effective lactation consultants.

But, if you are looking for a movie to attempt to give you heart-expanding holiday feelings without the Hallmark tinsel explosion, Joyride might be the movie for you.

On With the Show

Empire of Light

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

There are certain actors – you know the ones – who seem to put out a film every year right at awards season. The people who somehow never have a straight-to-VOD indie or a summer romp, just yearly Oscar vehicles.

For at least one of these people it is a welcome return visit, year after year.

Hello, Olivia Colman.

Seriously, is there anyone who does not love her? Any filmmaker, any actor, any moviegoer? Her performances are shamelessly, giddily human, authentic to a chilling degree. Her force of nature in Sam Mendes’s ode to the cinema, Empire of Light, is no different.

Mendes’s 2019 epic 1917 showed him a master of pacing, understated emotion and visceral thrill. Back in 2012, he made an almost Shakespearean Bond film, easily the strongest in the entire franchise with Skyfall. For Empire of Light, the filmmaker ­– who also wrote the script ­ – returns to the more sentimental content of his earlier career.

Colman is Hilary, the troubled, often melancholy manager of a coastal England cinema in the very early 1980s. A wonderful supporting cast – from the kindly Toby Jones to the prickly Colin Firth, the tender Michael Ward to surprising Tom Brooke ­– surrounds Colman with sparring partners up to the challenge.

Mendes’s tale, at its heart, revels not just in the magic of the movies, but of the movie house itself. Most of the patrons seem to come to the screenings alone, looking to escape the loneliness, the mundane, or the rising tide of extremism right outside those glass doors.

And though the crowds aren’t as large as they once were, the theater still has something to offer – as does Hilary. Her dutiful existence is shaken by the younger Stephen (Ward, outstanding) joining the crew, and together they start exploring some forgotten areas of the once majestic cinema.

The metaphor isn’t subtle, and the film’s tone is overtly nostalgic, but because Colman’s character is anything but typical, Mendes punctures his own sentimentality before it can become overbearing. Gorgeous framing from the great Roger Deakins doesn’t hurt, bathing it all in a grand beauty that reinforces what power can come from that certain beam of light.

The pandemic has drawn out no shortage of filmmakers who’ve been understandably inspired to assess their life’s work. With Empire of Light, Mendes is wearing his heart on his cupholder, imploring us to value what the theater has to offer.

This film can offer the exquisite Colman and a stellar ensemble, and that’s just enough. Through them, Mendes finds impact in his sweetness, rising above the moments that seem engineered for an ad that runs right before the one telling you not to talk or text.

A Day at the Beach

The Lost Daughter

by Hope Madden

Unnerving intimacy marks Maggie Gyllenhaal’s debut as a feature director, The Lost Daughter.

The veteran actor moves behind the camera to capture a weeklong holiday in Greece. Leda (Olivia Colman) lounges seaside and scribbles notes for another book. Little work gets done, though, thanks to the very large, very wealthy, very rowdy family that crowds the beach each day, but one member of that family sends Leda’s mind reeling back to her own youth.

Jessie Buckley’s young Leda captures the rich and volatile version of the woman Colman delivers on the beaches of Greece. The two performances never mirror or mimic each other. Rather, Buckley’s frustration and passion inform the reflective but still impetuous middle-aged woman taking stock of her life.

An actor whose unerring talent feels effortless, though no doubt it is not, Gyllenhaal draws that same kind of vulnerable, raw performance from her leads. Both versions of Leda surprise with a balance of moments, both ugly and dear. Anger lies behind their eyes, as well as longing and the regrettable loneliness of an outsider.

Colman conveys enormous emotional weight with her physical performance. The way she holds herself, the expressions that linger on her face, the changes in her gait—all of it articulates the particular suffering of this human in a way dialog never could.

Gyllenhaal frames the film as if to point out that the story is there, and is important, but of equal value is the way Leda sees the life unfolding around her. The approach is genius but unforgiving. A lesser cast could peter out with this level of attention. Luckily for all of us, Gyllenhaal’s uniformly subline cast (which includes Dakota Johnson and Ed Harris, both marvels) meets the challenge.

The deliberate camerawork in The Lost Daughter crafts a disquieting spell. Whether so close to an embrace you can almost smell the baby shampoo, or holding a distant glance at a stranger long enough to ensure its discomfort, Hélène Louvart’s cinematography disconcerts — as it did in Eliza Hittman’s 2020 treasure Never Rarely Sometimes Always.

Adapting Elena Ferrante’s novel, Gyllenhaal challenges romantic preconceptions about motherhood (sometimes quite bitingly, thanks to lines delivered with acidic precision by the remarkable Colman). The film acknowledges what is given up, what is lost, when you essentially transfer ownership of yourself—your time, your attention, your future—to someone else, to your children. The theme is deeply and honestly felt, and that, too, is unnerving.