When it comes to perfect timing, there is no doubting that the cold months of January and February and period biopics are a match made in cinematic heaven. Although Keira Knightley’s latest release doesn’t appear to have sparked the interest of any major governing bodies this year, there is something comfortable and correct feeling about heading to see a film like this in the midst of awards season. Another match made in cinematic heaven, is Knightley herself and the plethora of period pieces that she seems to come back to again and again. Would this outing prove to be a hit just like so many of her others?
As the title suggests, Colette tells the story of the legendary French author (played by Keira Knightley), detailing her marriage to notorious Paris libertine Henry ‘Willy’ Gauthier-Villars (Dominic West), her free and ‘bohemian’ lifestyle/sexuality, and the writing of her iconic Claudine novels that were, as a sign of the times, published and celebrated under her husband’s name.
If you went to the film dictionary and looked up ‘solid but not stand out period drama’, I wouldn’t be surprised if you found a synopsis of Colette underneath. The film gives a linear, straight forward account of Colette’s life over the course of about ten years, from mundane beginnings in a country village to avant-garde literary circles in Paris. There is nothing particularly wrong with the picture, but what is evident is that it never fully comes to life. Given the enticing and dramatic circumstances of the narrative, the tension of mistaken authorship, marital struggles, same sex affairs, opposite sex affairs, deception etc., there is just something about the film that stays on too much of an even keel for my liking. The story that unfolds is undoubtedly an interesting one, but perhaps one that loses its momentum somewhat as it moves towards the final third.
It must be said, though, that the one element of Colette that doesn’t lose momentum is its aesthetic. From the rich textures of the avant-garde Paris parties to the slightly more interesting than usual costuming for many of the leading characters, the film’s visual appeal stays strong throughout, something that perhaps keeps the audience more attentive even when the plot verges on plodding.
Ultimately, the film has all the ingredients thematically to be one that I really enjoy, but there is just something about the slightly lumbering nature of the chronological story telling that prevents it from really making an impact. Interestingly, there has been a small group of recent films that that share the same central premise, a female writer being denied authorship and ownership of her own wok. Colette is better than Mary Shelley, but nowhere near as good as The Wife, though what they do all have in common is the fact that the lead actress performance is the best element of each picture.
As the titular Colette, Keira Knightley looks and feels right at home in yet another period setting. I don’t know if it’s something about her angular aesthetic, or her crisp annunciation, whatever it is, it’s a trick that still hasn’t lost its appeal. Knightley plays Colette with determined intensity, never for a second a vulnerable damsel. She might be a ‘victim of circumstance’, but she certainly isn’t a victim, and Knightley showcases that grit really well. She’s the kind of actress who can be authentically period whilst also hinting at a gleam of modernity in the process, and that combination is perfect for this particular role.
As husband Willy, Dominic West gives a committed performance as a rather odious man. West is clearly having a great time portraying the central frustration for both Colette and for the audience, straddling the tightrope of caddish charm with infuriating self importance and self interest. He is effectively a human representation of the glass ceiling, and is every bit as infuriating as that description suggests.
The film boasts a relatively small number of central characters, but a few strong supporting roles are provided by the likes of Fiona Shaw, Eleanor Tomlinson and Aiysha Hart. Special mention in particular for Denise Gough who gives a charismatic performance as Mathilde de Morny, one of history’s more enigmatic and interesting queer figures.
Overall, Colette is pretty much what you would expect it to be, a solid biopic with an elevated central performance that perhaps persuades you to forgive the film some of its execution sins. Another personal success for Keira Knightley as she continues to build one of the most impressive period drama CVs of recent times.