Fashion & Beauty

Olivia Colman’s Face

March 13, 2022


Olivia Colman in “The Lost Daughter.” / Courtesy of Netflix / AP.

By Valerie Monroe

For nearly 16 years Valerie Monroe was the beauty director at O, The Oprah Magazine, where she wrote the popular “Ask Val” column.

If you’re interested in feeling happier about your appearance—especially as you age—you might like reading what she has to say about it. For more of her philosophical and practical advice, subscribe for free to How Not to F*ck Up Your Face at

I CAN’T REMEMBER how many times I’ve had to look up Maggie Gyllenhaal’s last name before spelling it, but that won’t stop me from making a couple of beauty-related observations about her extraordinary new movie, The Lost Daughter, which can be seen on Netflix.

You can read a grouchy analysis of the film here. I want to say something about two of the film’s faces—faces Gyllenhaal’s camera examines, caresses, and bumps up against in a way that often feels disturbingly intimate and intrusive. Inevitably, this line of thinking will lead me to a point about faces that have not been majorly manipulated by aesthetic interventions, which is by now an old story, but still worth a minute.

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To you in the back row muttering, “Why must we always talk about women’s aging faces rather than their accomplishments?” I offer up first, the man. Seventy-one-year-old Ed Harris plays a guy who’s spent 30 years in the blazing Greek sun blowing cigarette smoke through his nose—and has the skin to prove it. But is he something or what? (I’m also 71 and am grateful not to have his face, but rather a more . . . tended one, as we all know our culture is tougher on women than on men about what’s attractive as we age.) He dances like there’s no tomorrow, probably a good idea considering his chances of developing skin or lung cancer. But he is old—and his face, unblemished by youth, tells us he is full of, I don’t know . . . loneliness? It feels both shocking and refreshing to see a face so ravaged by expression and exposure.

All I want to say about Olivia Colman’s face is: Olivia Colman’s face.

Almost all I want to say. She spends nearly the entire movie with wet hair and the kind of makeup that’s meant to look like no makeup. With the camera two inches from her cheek, she is ravishing—at 47, she’s far from Western culture’s aesthetic ideal and, remarkably for an actress, seemingly untouched by intervention. Yet we can’t take our eyes off her. Why? Because her face, too, tells a story, a complicated story, and in the telling elicits a compelling desire in us to know it. What is that desire but attraction?

I think maybe Gyllenhaal, in an unintentional side gig, is beckoning us toward a beauty culture that—instead of fetishizing youth and sexuality—values and evokes, as great art does, presence, compassion, vulnerability, longing, curiosity, even a search for meaning.

I often urge you to learn to look at yourself without objectification. Bottom-line, that exercise allows and encourages you to let your face tell your stories, to recognize and welcome the character you’ve learned to conceal or obscure with a placid, pleasing expression, or with makeup, or with other, more intrusive aesthetic interventions.

Please take up your mirror now. Look into your own eyes. Can you see the story of a life in your own face? Can you find your own ravishing attraction?


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3 thoughts on “Olivia Colman’s Face

  1. Nancy G says:

    I loved the movie, probably because the acting, and the actors, were so REAL, including Dakota Johnson. Admittedly, I have not read the book, but the script and direction give enough of a backstory. Both Ed Harris and Olivia Coleman have aged beautifully, although Ms. Coleman is hardly old, and seemed to inhabit their characters wonderfully. As we, ourselves, age, we all hopefully have the wherewithal to make ourselves be who and how we want, in terms of time, imagination, and funds. That is a true luxury.

  2. Val Monroe says:

    Cynthia, I completely agree. What’s critical is that we believe we have the freedom to choose what we want, rather than feel constricted by unrealistic beauty standards. Thanks for your very thoughtful comment.

  3. cynthia tilson says:

    Oh wow…where to begin. This adaptation of Elena Ferrantes’ novel, The Lost Daughter, was interesting, although I must admit, background details in the novel, omitted for the sake of brevity, detracted from the overall theme common to the lives of many women. That is to say guilt about desiring a life on one’s own terms, versus living one’s life in service of others, as daughters, wives, and mothers do.

    In my golden years, shedding that guilt – a hangover from societal expectations – is tantamount to living my best life, in whatever time I have left. I encourage other women to do the same. So for me, it’s important to stop judging my fellow women for any decisions they make about how to finally feel better about themselves when they examine themselves in the mirror of their lives. If a nip here, or a tuck there helps one feel more connected to youthful innocence, exuberance, and energy, then why judge it? Likewise, a new lipstick, bright scarf, or pink hair outwardly declares to the woman in the mirror – and the outside world – that this old gal is reclaiming her lost individuality before it’s too late.

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