Directed by: Wash Westmoreland
Written by: Wash Westmoreland, Richard Glatzer and Rebecca Lenkiewicz
Starring: Keira Knightley, Dominic West, Fiona Shaw, Eleanor Tomlinson, Denise Gough and Rebecca Root.
With current campaigns such as #TIMESUP and #MeToo working to address gender inequality, surely the latest costume drama Colette, chronicling the life and works of France’s 20th-century literary and feminist icon Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, would be a fascinating and empowering look at challenging the norm of gender roles? Well disappointingly not quite; Westmoreland’s film plays it safe, favouring witty charm over tackling the subject matter at hand. However, leads Keira Knightley and Dominic West are a real joy to watch and both shine in this sumptuous biopic.
Sidone-Gabrielle Colette (Knightley) is a young country girl in Burgundy when she first meets and marries charming older man Willy (Dominic West), a high society literary figure who is driven by his hunger for women, fame, and fortune. Willy brings Colette to Paris where he’s the owner of publishing house known as the Factory, leading a team of ghostwriters who release fiction books published under Willy’s name. When his extravagant lifestyle leads to financial trouble and the loss of his writers, Colette picks up her pen and creates a book chronicling her childhood adventures under the character of Claudine. The book proves a huge hit, making Willy one of the most popular authors of the time, yet he refuses to publicly acknowledge his wife as the creator, commenting “no one reads female writers”. As demand grows for sequels, he goes as far as locking Colette in her room and barking at her to “write!”. Colette’s resulting rebellion leads her to explore her own sexuality and identity, awakening an unconventional artist ahead of her time.
Keira Knightley’s transformation from Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, a young and naive country girl, to Colette, a liberated feminist who has found her own voice and identity, is utterly fantastic. Knightley truly excels when she finally escapes from the shell Willy has trapped her in, playing him at his own game as she explores her sexuality with American heiress Georgie Raoul-Duval (Eleanor Tomlinson) and challenges the norm of gender roles with aristocrat trouser wearing Mathilde de Morny (Denise Gough). West, however, almost steals the show as the dastardly yet likeable Willy, bringing a whole lot of charm, swagger and wit to the screen. Together, the two leads bring a genuine believability and spark to the complicated whirlwind that was their marriage.
But where Colette truly shines is in the theatre halls of Paris and the gardens of rural France. The film is a spectacularly beautiful period drama, kudos to cinematographer Giles Nuttgens and costume designer Andrea Flesch for so richly bringing to life early 20th century Paris. The film features some truly stunning shots, particularly when framing the spiral staircase leading to Colette and Willy’s apartment, as well Colette’s theatrical performance in the Moulin Rouge. The filming locations used to capture rural Burgundy are also a treat, showcasing the region’s beautiful countryside and gardens.
Colette is a handsome period piece featuring fantastic performances from costume drama veteran Keira Knightly and the charming Dominic West, yet lacks the impact and depth I was particularly excited for. I think the main confusion lands with Westmoreland not truly knowing what kind of film he wanted this to be, which is a true shame as Colette had such a rich life to draw from.