Director: Wash Westmoreland
Starring: Keira Knightley, Dominic West, Fiona Shaw, Robert Pugh, Denise Gough, Eleanor Tomlinson, Ray Panthaki, Arabella Weir
Written by: Wash Westmoreland, Rebecca Lenkiewicz and (also story) Richard Glatzer
Running Time: 115 mins
Release date: 9th January 2019
The #MeToo campaign has really taken a huge effect in the filmmaking world. You just have to look at the quality of films hitting our screens recently show a move toward bigger, more complex female roles for actresses. Last week, we had The Favourite, in which three actresses take on the leads, while other films of late, Suspiria, Widows and A Simple Favor, all have strong female presences. Now come Colette, the story of a woman who decided she wanted to be more than just a shadow behind a man and took on not only her husband but the norm of society in turn of the 20th Century France.
After marrying Henry Gauthier-Villars, known commonly as “Willy”, a writer who has a team of unsuspecting people who do the writing for him, country girl Gabrielle Colette moves to the society life of Paris, finding she fits in with her warmth, wit and intelligence. When Willy asks her to write some of her childhood stories, the tales are published and they become the toast of the town. As Colette produces more books, she notices Willy becoming more flamboyant not only with their money but on the women he frequently visits. Colette decides to take control of her own destiny, forming shocking (at the time) relationships with other females and demanding she has her name on her stories.
Wash Westmoreland, whose previous film was the powerful Still Alice, has taken this tale that isn’t well known and given it a sheen, using the setting and the art design to maximum effect. The film looks lavish and exquisite, moving effortlessly from the gorgeous countryside to the decadence of Paris life to the dimly lit world of theatre that Colette joins as part of her rebirth. Having said that, Westmoreland’s direction is unfussy and simplistic, never trying to be flashy with camera angles and fast cuts, allowing the story to develop at a natural pace and giving his actors room to grow.
The story is as relevant today as it was in1900’s Paris. A woman plucked from a simple life in the country, marrying a man who uses and manipulates people for his own personal gains and finding that she has talents and a mind of her own, that she is willing to take chances by shocking and surprising almost everyone. Colette, the novelist, is little known in this country and so going into the film you want to learn something about her. This film certainly delivers that. She was hugely talented and certainly had a mind of her own. She also refused to be the “little woman” at home and even if she did accompany her husband to the big social events, she would often than not be the centre of attention. She also took the opportunity to form her own affairs, firstly with an American socialite and then with a woman willing to push her talents to the limits.
Along with the lush look of the piece, the performances fit perfectly, with a strong supporting cast helping the film along. Yet the film’s real selling point is the two leads. Dominic West, as the free-wheeling Willy, could have been villainous, yet West plays him as a man who wants to enjoy life to the max. He’s the kind of man who uses and, often abuses people, yet he does it in a way that can be almost forgivable, even if some of his actions are extreme.
Keira Knightley, however, shines here as the title character. She embraces Colette’s independence with aplomb, moving from the innocence of her country existence to a pansexual with a mind to be who she wants to be, do what she wants to do, even if society doesn’t necessarily agree. The pairing of her and West is perfect, with real chemistry coming pouring out of the screen. This could have been just another costume drama about another writer we don’t really know. Instead, with Knightley’s performance and her partnership with West, this is lifted to a fascinating and beautiful story of our time.
Colette has sadly been ignored in the awards, which is a shame because it is a simply told, unfussy tale with a central performance that demands your attention. In this time of strong female leads, Knightley rises to the challenge and delivers her best so far.