Movie Review

'Colette' is Keira Knightley's best performance to date

A country girl fights male prejudice to become a literary success in this biopic about a ground-breaking French author

09 December 2018 - 00:00

When she died in 1954 at the age of 81, French writer Colette, author of over 50 novels, plays and memoirs, was a national treasure. She had represented for half a century the epitome of the Belle Époque and became a symbol to women everywhere of the possibilities of a life lived true to oneself - patriarchy, misogyny and sexual norms be damned.
Colette lived a full and scandalous life - marrying three times, sleeping with younger men and many women and generally doing whatever she wanted in a way that was shocking for women of her time.
Rather than attempt to cram the author's life into one film, director Wash Westmoreland's biopic focuses on an early period when she fought against male prejudice to turn herself from pretty country girl, Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, into the ground-breaking literary phenomenon who took bohemian Paris by storm at the turn of the century and never looked back.
Westmoreland's story begins in 1873, when 23-year-old Colette (Keira Knightley) is living a quiet and predictable life in the countryside. There she's wooed by, sleeps with and soon marries, the gallant, charming Parisian raconteur Willy (Dominic West).
Willy makes his living producing books written under his name by a factory of young writers. When he introduces his new, pretty but naive bride to the world of Paris salons and bohemians, there are plenty of knowing winks - the idea of well-known libertine Willy settling down is laughable to those who know him.
Willy's liberal attitudes to matters of sex soon surface as a source of tension between the couple, but Colette turns out to be less pliant than her husband would like and she soon reins him in. When financial difficulties place pressure on Willy's literary factory, he suggests his wife write some of her school day stories under his name for publication.
The resulting book, Claudine at School, becomes a runaway smash and changes the fortunes of the couple forever.
The problem is, as far as anyone is concerned, Claudine is the creation of Willy and he is determined to keep it that way. After all, as he tells his increasingly unimpressed wife - no one reads female authors and part of the success of the novels is their acceptance as the genius imagination of a young girl by a male author.
WATCH | The trailer of Colette

The simmering fight over authorship between the couple forms the foundation for the rest of the film. It's a credit to Westmoreland and co-screenwriters that they manage to hang together a compelling story of the break-up of a marriage and the self-discovery of a beautiful, talented young woman coming into her own, that feels relevant, true and often softly comic in its sly observations of the absurdities of gender power relations. It's not a formally inventive biopic but its well-executed and visually evocative enough to provide a useful introduction to Colette and the world of the early 20th-century European literary scene.
Westmoreland is helped by a central performance from Knightley - which even I as a long-time detractor will begrudgingly admit is her best to date. Her clenched jaw works as a useful rather than annoying means of expressing Colette's increasing frustrations and she manages to come out of her shell and relish the scenes in which her character begins to explore the possibilities of a new sexual and professional alternative lifestyle that soon leaves Willy and his patronising patriarchal self-serving conservatism trailing perplexedly behind her.
As Willy, Dominic West also offers his best film performance - managing to create a sensitive and multifaceted portrait of a man who is more buffoon than villain and who clearly attempts to fight against his conservative ideas for the sake of the woman he loves but is ultimately a slave to the mores of his time...

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