3.5 out of 5 stars.
“Colette” looks like a traditional period piece. It boasts lush costumes and production design, a gorgeous score, and an array of talented actors. But while it is traditional in appearance, this film is imbued with modern sensibilities throughout, flipping expectations at every turn as it tells the true story of its titular heroine.
Directed by Wash Westmoreland, Keira Knightley stars as the celebrated French novelist Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, but at the start of the film, she is just a girl living with her parents (played by the wonderful Fiona Shaw and Robert Pugh) in a small village in rural France. She is whisked into Parisian society when she marries the well-known writer Henry Gauthier-Villars (Dominic West) and moves to the city. Henry, who is struggling to write anything worthwhile, convinces Colette to ghost write for him, first just letters, but later stories based on her own life experiences. Henry, who publishes under the name Willy, takes credit for a series of novels based on a French girl named Claudine, especially when they become enormously popular throughout the country. But Colette soon becomes tired of not only not being credited for her work, but also being forced to write on a subject she no longer cares for.
Paralleling all the drama surrounding Colette’s career as a writer is the drama with her husband and other relationships. While Colette is angry to discover early in her marriage that Henry has been having affairs, he encourages her to embark on affairs of her own, even affairs with other women, including a wealthy woman from Louisiana (Eleanor Tomlinson, boasting a horrid southern accent) and Mathilde de Morny, otherwise known as Missy (Denise Gough), who dresses like a man. Colette becomes fascinated with people like Missy who push the boundaries of societal norms, and begins doing so herself, even embarking on a career on the vaudeville stage as she seeks independence.
“Colette” has a rather light take on its subject matter, which makes it a fun and breezy biopic. But it misses opportunities to focus seriously on matters like feminism and a woman’s role in early twentieth-century society. Even the main conflict between Henry and Colette feels like it is being skimmed over as she fights for the rights to her creation. And we never really get a sense of Colette’s transition from rural town to modern high society, because we don’t see enough of her life before she marries Henry and moves to Paris. We know that she is initially uncomfortable wearing the city fashions, but after that she appears to adapt with no problem. But’s still great to see such unexpectedly modern and relevant subject matter in a film set in the early 1900s.
The greatest aspect of “Colette” is its cast and the performances they give. West is great Henry, who is controlling but tries to appear to not to be. And he has good chemistry with Knightley, who is phenomenal in one of her best roles in years. “Colette” allows her to embrace and embody a character who is curious, determined, and independent, and she does so beautifully.
“Colette” is far from one of the best films of the year, and is more likely to get attention for its cast than for its material. But it’s engaging and entertaining, and gives the audience enough of a taste of “Colette” to leave them wanting to learn more about her—and really, that’s one of the best things a biopic can hope to accomplish.
Runtime: 111 minutes. Rated R.