Overlooked Gem

'Tyrannosaur' offers the best recent performance by an actress—no matter what the Oscars and other awards say

Let's talk about Olivia Colman.

She's a British actress who made her mark across the pond in sitcoms, primarily. But when she did not receive a BAFTA nomination for her performance in the decidedly serious Tyrannosaur, Colman became a trending topic worldwide on Twitter. The reason? This is one of the best, most gut-wrenching portrayals in a long while.

Film distribution is a funny thing. Apparently, no significant American studio wanted to throw Tyrannosaur in theaters, even though it won three awards at Sundance last year and was nominated for that festival's grand jury prize. Instead of winding up at Weinstein or Fox Searchlight, companies that play the awards season for all it's worth, Tyrannosaur was picked up by Strand Releasing. Nothing against them, but the people at Strand Releasing don't have the resources the more-celebrated indies have. So, you're hearing about Olivia Colman—and what is the year's most-exceptional work by an actress—now instead of two months ago. And it's why this may, in fact, be the first you've heard of Tyrannosaur at all.

What's all the commotion about? Colman plays Hannah, a thrift-store owner whose door is flung open by Joseph (Peter Mullan, very nearly Colman's equal). Clearly agitated and with nowhere else to turn, Joseph hides behind a rack of clothes, and Hannah does her best to calm him down. She asks the stranger if she can pray for him. The prayer is ultimately not what matters to Joseph; he is taken with Hannah's kindness and decency.

Joseph is damaged goods. His wife died five years earlier, and there is every reason to suspect that he has whiled away those years bouncing from bottle to bookie to bar fight. A combination of the first two brought him into Hannah's thrift store. He accidentally killed his dog in a drunken rage, has no job and has very few friends. In other words, Joseph is adrift, and that's a dangerous place for a violent alcoholic to be.

Despite her optimism and faith, Hannah doesn't have it much better. Her husband (Eddie Marsan) is abusive and tyrannical. She is, for lack of a better term, emotionally, sexually and physically imprisoned.

There are predictable ways in which these characters could come together, and these circumstances could resolve, but by and large, Tyrannosaur avoids them. Another element that is never too far removed from the foreground is the working-class environment of Leeds, England, so this story—while assuredly not typical of Leeds—is appropriately rough around the edges. It would be a disappointment if we were fed a happy ending.

The actor Paddy Considine (The Bourne Ultimatum) wrote and directed Tyrannosaur, which is a feature-length extension of an award-winning short film he made several years ago. Unlike that of Colman, his work here has been recognized by BAFTA; he's in the running for the award honoring first-time directors. What he brings to the movie primarily is, not surprisingly, an actor's feel. This is a highlight reel for Mullan and Colman, so Considine doesn't work overtime setting up camera angles for the sake of getting interesting camera angles. There are no slow-motion sequences or artistic crane shots. He uses a very naturalistic approach; anything else would work to the film's detriment.

Peter Mullan is a more-well-known quantity than his co-star, even if his name is not one you recognize. He most recently played the father in Steven Spielberg's War Horse, but odds are you saw him before that. His Joseph is a real chicken-or-the-egg kind of character: Is this his situation because his temper and other problems keep him from something better, or does his situation cause the rage and anger? When Joseph tells Hannah he used to speak to his late wife like she was a dog because "I am not a nice human being," there really is nothing left to say.

As devastating as Mullan is, though, Colman is just otherworldly. While Joseph has the advantage of coming onscreen showing most of his colors, Hannah must reveal herself and her struggles in stages, slowly and ever more sadly. It's a daring, remarkable portrayal.

That brings us back to where we started: The Oscar nominations are always followed up with lists of who got snubbed, and who didn't. David Fincher acolytes are still complaining that he didn't get nominated for a movie they hated, because nobody should have remade The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Because of the economics of Hollywood, Tyrannosaur had zero chance to earn nominations. There was just no way enough people would see it. But you should see it all the same, and when you do—no matter who wins Best Actress—you'll probably believe Olivia Colman deserved it.

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