Review: Colette

I’ve found it hard to explain my views on Colette! It tells a remarkable story, but in other areas it didn’t entirely do it for me.

At the start of the 20th century, Gabrielle ‘Colette’ (Keira Knightley) is married off to famous Parisian “writer” ‘Willy’ (Dominic West), and while she adjusts to bourgeoisie city life, he urges her to write something for him at a time of financial panic. Her Claudine book becomes the toast of Paris, under his name, but she starts to question her place and life as a heterosexual and a traditional wife, and becomes more assertive.

The events in the film are true, and are incredibly timely given 2018’s #MeToo and #TimesUp campaigns. Director Wash Westmoreland adapts alongside Richard Glatzer, and though made before last year’s reveals, much of Colette’s experiences have one hell of a resonance. Willy’s manipulation is undertaken largely without imposition, force or abuse, but his psychological abuse of Colette’s creativity and position as his wife at a time of less gender equality is striking.

In fact, his position as a man taking credit for other’s creations and art and soaking up the limelight was eerily Weinsteinian, though to make it clear he does not do any of the heinous things that scumbag did. This is a strong element of the story, particularly in that Colette doesn’t sit still and take her treatment, the movie following her as she broadens her sexual horizons and gains more self confidence, not to mention the ability to see how she is being manipulated.

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The sad thing is that the film – for me – just drifts a bit, and wasn’t that engaging at points where I had hoped it might remain so (that’s probably more the limitations of the real story, to be quite frank!) Westmoreland ably stages snappy debates and provides an interesting, period-accurate Paris and France, but there is no vim or style. Lighting by Giles Nuttgens seems to follow the standard European period drama from this time, everything appearing overly yellow and green out in the sticks and grey, grim and glum in the city, only the interiors having opulent character.

The script is particularly sharp in scenes where Willy and Colette spar with one another, and when Dominic West holds court as the former. As a consequence, other scenes – which should have more heft given their significance to Colette’s life and her relationships – feel dry, forced (despite characters and their motivations being unbelievably brave and daring for the time), and as such seem and feel (at least to me) less important than they should.

My issue is that this takes an exciting time in French culture and a shockingly gripping real life story, but makes both feel staid. Our main character and her new partners were trailblazers, and yet it all seems to go slowly, losing a bit of focus. I think that’s down to West being such a dominant figure onscreen compared to Knightley and the cast.

The elements of her real life feel diminished and forced, not natural – I’m perhaps being too harsh, but a lot of what I didn’t like hinges on performances too. The costuming is quite impressive for a time when France ran the gamut from frilly and prim to transgender black tie at society parties, but the music by Thomas Ades (unless diagetic) is largely forgettable, melting into the background and making absolutely no impact.

So the acting. First off, I have to say I like Keira Knightley: she gives everything a try, and is blazing a trail for actresses in terms of her frank public views and opinions. However, her performance just didn’t grab me: she clearly gives her all to try and play such a complicated figure, but she just didn’t succeed for me, and I wasn’t engaged. It’s a real shame, especially because she is up against an on-form Dominic West.

As the main male role, I’m honestly surprised West’s performance wasn’t considered for awards. He oozes manipulation as the bizarrely gregarious, jealous and at turns jovial Willy, reminding us of his versatility. He shows that male power over, and manipulation of, women can be expressed softly and surreptitiously, and by the end you’re charmed by his smarm and horrified at his machinations.

West’s booming voice, incredible facial hair and a proper paunch are coupled with his great hold on a man so insecure that his seemingly progressive attitudes are a veil behind which he masks paranoia, at losing control of work he didn’t write and a wife he has controlled since the start.

The problem is that his performance overshadows Knightley’s efforts to such an extent that the point of the film – Colette’s growth into a strong-willed, independent and modern woman 100 years ahead of her time – is diminished. It’s another shame that there is an imbalance when it could have been a real match of ability and character, and when the lead character is such a strong and inspirational woman.

Supporting cast members are alternately cameos, unforgettably bad and quiet successes. Poldark’s Eleanor Tomlinson makes an ill-advised, quite shocking appearance as an American ingenue that falls for Colette, and while the actress is clearly talented (from what I’ve seen on the former), she is saddled with the single worst American accent I’ve seen attempted.

It’s so bad, it nearly ruins the pivotal role her character plays in Colette’s life and decisions going forward, destroying the flow of the story. I hope Tomlinson gets other roles soon that allow her to show off her ability (that aren’t American). Fiona Shaw is sadly wasted given her work on Killing Eve as Colette’s surprisingly tolerant mum, while Denise Gough makes the biggest impression as Colette’s transgender partner, who helps Colette realise she is her own person in a short but considered, quietly strong role.

Despite what I’ve said, give Colette a try! I know one person definitely disagrees completely with me regarding Knightley’s performance, and films are always subjective! For the twists and turns of its remarkable story and a great, boomingly sinister performance from Dominic West, I’d recommend it.

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