Timing, as they say, is everything. In which case, director Wash Westmoreland, who made the Oscar-winning Still Alice, has timed his latest offering, Colette, to perfection. On the surface, a 19th century costume drama but also the story of a woman learning to take control of her own life, one that resonates with today’s audiences and is based on the life of a French author who perhaps isn’t as well known in the UK as she should be.
Born Sidonie Gabrielle Colette (Keira Knightley) and brought up in rural France, she is courted by the more sophisticated Willy (Dominic West) who earns what money he has from writing and publishing. He whisks her away to Paris and, once married and short of money, he adds her to his team of scribes, persuading her to write a book based on her rural childhood. Once he’s spiced it up, he publishes it under his own name and it’s an instant success but, this being the early 1900s, Colette herself stands no chance of being recognised as the author. As he continues to make money from her talent (and carry on his various affairs), she is increasingly disillusioned with their relationship. At the same time, she discovers her true sexuality and becomes a figure that is both reviled and admired at the same time by Parisian society.
An overtly feminist tale, then, and one that again demonstrates Westmoreland’s skill in creating and depicting rich and strong female characters, true life or otherwise. His leading lady this time is Keira Knightley, back on her familiar costume drama territory and also in what is perhaps her most satisfying role to date, even if it does have a downside. She plays Colette from her teenage years through to her mid-30s and, while Westmoreland’s approach is understandable and logical, it isn’t wholly successful. As the teenager, Knightley looks like exactly what she is – an older woman wearing pigtails and childish clothes to make her look younger. Not only does she look too old, she doesn’t wholly grasp the essence of her character. But – and it’s a sizeable but – that all changes once Colette matures. She really gets into her stride, giving a spirited, courageous and emotional performance, building to a particularly heartfelt confrontation between herself and Willy when he sells the rights to her books.
Dominic West has a ball playing Willy, emphasising the more flamboyant side of the role but never neglecting its inherent pathos: his many and varied excuses to wheedle his way back into his wife’s favour are laughable, but when he confesses to her that he’s not the man he once was in bed, it evokes just a twinge of sympathy. One of his associates describes him as the most slippery man in Paris and they’re not wrong. His on-screen partnership with Knightley sparkles, even in those earlier scenes when she’s playing the teenager.
Colette is much more just a costume drama. Its relevance to current issues, especially when it comes to the author’s private life, gives the audience plenty to consider, it tells its story with energy and commitment and, despite those early sequences, it boasts a mature performance from Knightley. There’s much to admire in both the film and Colette herself – her courage and self-belief – so, for those who’ve not come across her work before, this could be a fascinating voyage of discovery.
Freda Cooper | ★★★ 1/2
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Drama, Biography | London Film Festival, 11 October (2018) | UK, 25 January 2019 | Lionsgate | Dir. Wash Westmoreland | Keira Knightley, Dominic West, Fiona Shaw, Denise Gough and Ray Panthaki.