Colette Cert: 15, 1hr 51mins
Even under her abbreviated pen name of ‘Colette’, the French early-20th-century writer more properly known as Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, who wrote the novel Gigi, is fast fading from collective memory.
And if that’s true of Colette, it’s doubly true of her philandering husband, Henry Gauthier-Villars, who wrote under the all too appropriate nom-de-plume of ‘Willy’. There was a time, apparently, when the whole of fin-de-siècle Paris would ask: ‘Have you read the latest Willy?’ Now it’s a case of ‘Have you read any Willy at all?’
And ultimately, it’s this passing of time and fading from memory that makes the biopic Colette a film that charms, modestly entertains and is certainly pretty to look at but never quite grips in the way those involved in its making must have hoped.
Colette is a modestly entertaining, although not gripping, biopic of the French author most famous for Gigi. Keira Knightley (above with Alexander Weaver) is terrific in the central role
Directed by British film- maker Wash Westmoreland, who helped Julianne Moore win an Oscar with Still Alice, this is a film that starts out assuming we know more about its subject than many of us do, and yet ends – rather abruptly – leaving us certainly better informed but with little desire to find out more.
Thankfully, there are compensations, chief among which is Keira Knightley, who is terrific in the central role. When we first meet her she appears to be an innocent teenager living a quiet rural life in deepest Burgundy with her protective parents.
But from the moment we find her rolling around in the hay with her significantly older, more sophisticated admirer, Henry (Dominic West), we’re pretty sure there will be more to the spirited Colette than meets the eye. She likes sex, longs for excitement and loves her ‘Willy’, for starters.
Dominic West (above with Knightley) plays her philandering husband Henry who insists that Colette’s fledgling literary efforts are published under his name, not hers
Alas, once they are married and installed in Paris, she discovers that her flamboyantly loud, bon-viveur publisher husband is ill deserving of her affections. He’s serially and unrepentantly unfaithful, a discovery that prompts his strong-willed young wife not to leave him but certainly to review her options.
Not only would she like to write herself, at a time when writing was considered no job for a woman, but when it comes to his infidelities she discovers she’s very much an if-you-can’t-beat-’em-join-’em kind of girl. And one with a growing interest in other women.
This is the fourth big film to feature lesbian relationships in just over a month, which might be one reason why it struggles for dramatic impact. It’s also far from the first film recently about aspiring female writers of the late 19th and early 20th century being thwarted by a male-dominated publishing industry – Mary Shelley and The Wife covered similar ground – again reducing impact.
Colette also discovers a growing interest in women with Poldark‘s Eleanor Tomlinson playing a southern belle with whom both Colette and Henry begin an affair. Above: Denise Gough
Despite Henry insisting on the novels written by his wife being published under his name, and eventually emerging as a more complex character than we initially give him credit for, West never quite convinces. Poldark star Eleanor Tomlinson is miscast too as the wealthy southern belle with whom both husband and wife independently begin an affair.
Knightley, however, can be rightly proud of her contribution as the convention- defying, proto-feminist Colette, albeit in a film that never quite delivers.
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