'Colette' Review: A period-drama with a modern twist

Director Wash Westmoreland and actress Keira Knightley attend 'Colette' Paris Premiere at Cinema Gaumont Marignan on January 10, 2019 in Paris, France.

With roles in films such as The Duchess, Atonement and Anna Karenina, we have become accustomed to seeing Keira Knightley in period-dramas.

Her latest foray into the genre, Colette, sees her play the titular character, a French novelist who become a sensation in the first half of the 20th century. Rather than focusing on her most successful period – which coincided with the release of 1944’s Gigi – this biopic from Wash Westmoreland (best known for writing and directing Still Alice) depicts the writer’s formative years at the turn of the century, as she seeks to find both her personal and literary voice.

She’s somewhat under the thumb of her husband Willy, played brilliantly by Dominic West, a writer to whom honesty matters not; not only does he regularly cheat on his wife, but he enlists a team of ghost-writers to produce most of his work. Colette initially starts as a letter-writer, but Willy sees her talent, and asks her to embellish her own childhood experiences as part of a novel, which comes to be known as Claudine. The book proves to be a huge success, with the couple being thrust into the limelight, but as the sequels come, Colette grows tired of her status as a ghost-writer, and seeks to forge her own identity.

Like Still Alice, this is very much a film about individuality and identity, but with a key difference; whereas Julianne Moore’s dementia-inflicted character is desperately trying to cling onto everything that made her, Colette is trying to figure it out, experimenting with her writing, attire and sexuality. A fling with a Louisiana heiress (Eleanor Tomlinson) sets her off on this new path, leading to a relationship with Missy (Denise Gough), a noblewoman who collaborates with Colette in the form of a stage-show.

(L-R) Director Wash Westmoreland, Keira Knightley and Dominic West attend the UK Premiere of 'Colette' and BFI Patrons gala during the 62nd BFI London Film Festival on October 11, 2018 in...(L-R) Director Wash Westmoreland, Keira Knightley and Dominic West attend the UK Premiere of 'Colette' and BFI Patrons gala during the 62nd BFI London Film Festival on October 11, 2018 in...

The screenplay, which Westmoreland co-wrote with Richard Glatzer and Rebecca Lenkiewicz, is vibrant, snappy and also thoughtful when portraying these relationships, brilliantly exposing Willy’s hypocrisy towards infidelity; he forbids Colette from sleeping with other men, but is fine with her homosexual experiences as they fulfil his sexual fantasies. Even with his shortcomings – of which there are many – West’s energetic performance as the charismatic lothario makes you like him up to a point; despite his arrogance and greed, there are shreds of humility and self-deprecation, with a smidgen of self-doubt to boot.

Even though his marriage to Colette is rocky, there’s a real chemistry between the pair, with Knightley excelling in the role, going from a witty yet shy country-girl to a confident, challenging Parisian writer. This progression is chartered in the numerous party scenes; at first, she blends into the background, feeling out of place amongst the bourgeoisie, but she gradually fits in as the story goes, and expresses her bawdy and more flamboyant side.

This is where Colette really shines, with Westmoreland’s direction meaning the film doesn’t get bogged down by the usual period-drama trappings; like the main characters, there’s a playfulness here, with action skipping along due to the bright and breezy tone. The recreation of Paris (despite being shot in Prague) at the turn of the 20th century is excellent, with the sublime costume design and fantastic cinematography giving the film a real sheen.

It’s a testament to Westmoreland that he’s managing to imbue the progressive messages with a sense of fun; so often you see films with similar ideals get bogged down by their own self-importance, but Colette revels in it, focusing on the liberation rather than the oppression. With a lovely visual style, two sublime lead-performances and surprisingly playful tone, Colette is everything a biopic should be; enlightening, energetic and timely.

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