Film Review | Colette: Lush but unsentimental

Keira Knightley is on top form in this biopic about the taboo-smashing titular writer, set in turn-of-the-century Paris

Working off a script by his late husband Richard Glatzer (also co-writer for their breakthrough film Still Alice), director Wash Westmoreland expertly marshals a story about a complex and vivacious figure in Colette, aided along by an inspired and clear-eyed performance from Keira Knightley and devoid of the excessive sentimentality and anachronistic straining for shallow contemporary relevance one finds all too often in period dramas of its ilk.

Gabrielle Colette (Knightley) is uprooted from her quiet rural family life and plunged straight into the heart of the vibrant Parisian publishing scene by her impresario husband Henry Gauthier-Villars, aka ‘Willy’ (Dominic West), whose eponymous magazine is on the rise as an influential periodical among the city’s turn-of-the-century bohemian set.

But the magazine demands new voices as sales begin to flag, which leads Willy to suggest that Gabrielle begin writing short stories under his name for publication. Accepting to undertake the task with halting steps at first, Gabrielle evolves from being a writer of staid prose sketches based on country life, to electrifying and risque tales documenting the female experience. Her efforts eventually crystallise in the ‘Claudine’ novels – semi-autobiographical stories that become a true sensation in the scene that Willy is so desperate to court.

Kiera Knightley is on top form as Gabrielle Colette
Kiera Knightley is on top form as Gabrielle Colette

But as he continues to take credit for Gabrielle’s output, Willy fails to realise the simmering resentment his wife begins to harbour for her forced anonymity, which kick-starts a journey of self-discovery, and a battle for her own agency in an unequal world.

Sumptuously shot by cinematographer Giles Nuttgens (Hell or High Water) with masterful costume and production design on its side (courtesy of Andrea Flesch and Michael Carlin, respectively), Colette certainly makes a great first impression, but one that may perhaps disguise its hidden depths at the outset. Indeed, Westmoreland’s film appears to have all the trappings of the traditional period drama, and can appeal on that level. But its strengths lie in how it does not rest on that genre’s laurels, instead focusing on the specificity of its character’s experience to carry the story forward.

Knightley is certainly on top form here, delivering a clear-eyed and disciplined performance of a complex woman who may be of rural origins but whose adaptation to the highly-charged, metropolitan world of the Parisian publishing scene involves her shedding any wide-eyed naivete pretty early on. Knightley adopts a no-bullshit attitude in her depiction of Colette, rightly confident in the knowledge that the character’s integrity and consistency is enough to make her sympathetic without her having to soften the blow of her character’s convictions.

The reining in of overt sentimentality in favour of a mature portrayal of its characters and their historical and cultural mores goes down well in a film that could easily have been a placeholder for contemporary sloganeering. A film about a proto-feminist writer in turn-of-the-century Paris is certainly vulnerable to shallow appropriation of ‘woke’ themes by corporate entities. Luckily, Westmoreland appears to have been allowed to craft a film that allows these concerns to speak for themselves, working as an artist to depict another – one whose gender-based struggles were very real, and whose contextual realities the film depicts with verve and grace.

The depiction of ‘Willy’ is the most telling element here. Neither a Byronic playboy-hero nor an irredeemable boor, Willy sits as something in between – a charmer who in the end fails to live up to his own hype, both as a husband and a businessman. Yet, Dominic West managed to make him loveable all the while, and our begrudging sympathy of him matches Colette’s own: a woman who tolerates him until it becomes unsustainable, gritting her teeth and forging her own path ahead.

While certainly challenged by the mores of her day, Colette is crucially never depicted as a victim. Her rewards are hard-won, and entirely her own. Refreshingly, we are invited to praise Colette, not mourn her.

The verdict

Where most period dramas will tend to coddle the audience into an escapist mode while at the same time validating their contemporary viewpoints and never shaking them out of true, Wash Westmoreland’s latest is refreshingly free of sentimentality while still managing to hold on to some of the cosmetic pleasures of its erstwhile genre.

Lush in its production values and certainly allowing for no small manner of ‘period porn’ in its costume and set design, Colette nonetheless manages to operate at a notch above its peers, thanks to its nuanced array of characters and equally well-thought out, complex performances.