This thoroughly enjoyable biopic tells the story of celebrated and notorious French writer Colette and her struggle for recognition. Directed by Wash Westmoreland (Still Alice 2014), Colette has the feel of a lush, British period drama, with well-drawn characters, gorgeous costuming and a pace that never feels rushed.
We first see Colette (Keira Knightley) as a coltish 19-year-old, something that Knightley pulls off so well, even now in her 30s. Colette is a country girl, naive and unworldly, and smitten with the much older Willy (Dominic West). When they marry, he sweeps her into the avant-garde excesses of Paris and the Belle Epoque.
I won’t recount the story as, if like me you know little of Colette’s life, it will be more engaging if you discover it afresh. The key themes are Willy and Colette’s unconventional marriage – he was a known libertine and encouraged her infidelities with women – and the authorship of the celebrated Claudine novels. Published under Willy’s name but written by Colette, they became a sensation and also a kernel of discord for them both when Willy refused to give Colette credit.
One way the film succeeds is in its balanced portrayal of the key characters. Willy could easily have been a monster but he is essentially likeable and we understand why Colette is so captivated by and bound to him. Knightley does a decent job with Colette, credibly taking her from gangly ingenue to worldly virago. Notable also is Denise Gough as Missy, Colette’s lover who was born Mathilde de Morny and, after a failed marriage to the sixth Marquis de Belbeuf, affirmed his gender and lived as a man. It was also a pleasure to see Dickie Beau as ‘cantomimer’ Wague. I’m looking forward to seeing him as Kenny Everett in Bohemian Rhapsody and wish I’d caught his show Re-Member Me at the recent Melbourne Festival.
The only aspect of the film that felt a bit odd was the Britishness of it all. The accents are emphatically English, the countryside looks the same and, with Fiona Shaw as Colette’s mother Sidonie, I kept forgetting we were actually in France. The only reminder is the surely deliberate ploy of showing Colette writing in French, even when the voice-over is as English as an Austen novel.
Don’t let this deter you though. We need more stories like this one, that raise the voice of women and reframe history to include the stories of all those people not born as men.
Have you seen this film? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.