Colette tells the true story of a young woman’s fight to be in control of her own life. It’s an interesting story set in Paris in the late 1800s, riddled with issues that are still relevant in today’s society. With beautiful costuming and setting it was easy to become invested in a film with such an unusual story. While the performances were what I was most looking forward to, there are a few other elements that also captured my attention.
Gabrielle Colette (Keira Knightley) is a young woman living with her parents in the French countryside. She catches the eye of a writer from Paris named Willy (Dominic West) and the two are quickly married. Willy assures her that his wild days are behind him and that she makes him entirely happy. Unable to control himself Willy engages in affairs with women and gambles away what little money they have. As time passes Willy tasks his ghostwriters with the idea of a new novel but they refuse to work until he is able to pay them. Instead he turns to Colette and asks her to write down some of her childhood school stories. The novel and character “Claudine” become incredibly popular throughout France and brings Willy to a new level of success. With that success, Willy becomes more demanding of Colette’s stories and demands that she maintain the facade. The novel’s popularity introduces them into new social circles where Colette is exposed to unconventional lifestyles and relationships that peak her interest. Eventually Colette agrees to give Willy freedom to seek out other relationships just as long as she is granted the same right. This opens the doorway to Colette’s rebellion, which sends her down a path of exploration, independence and confidence in herself as a woman.
The screenplay written by the film’s director, Wash Westmoreland, Rebecca Lenkiewicz and Richard Glatzer, effectively addresses modern topics in ways that feel natural. It never preaches to you or feels unauthentic to the characters. The best example of this would be Colette’s sexuality. This is just as part of her story not its main focus. Her relationships with other women were only a small part of her overall transformation and I thought this was an interesting approach. It came as a bit of a surprise because I expected it to steer the rest of the film and it did not, which in the end felt like the better choice. One area where I took issue was its pacing. I was bothered by the series of dates flashing onscreen every time there was a scene change and it created a rather off-putting and choppy opening. The rest of the first half is timed out well, transitioning through the first few years of their marriage, highlighting their martial and financial struggles. However after the success of “Claudine” the film noticeably slows down and then wraps itself up rather quickly. As the film is coming to a close some really interesting things are going on in Colette’s life and unfortunately I never got to see them. It was necessary to see how Colette got to the place where she felt liberated enough to live such an unconventional life but it also felt like there was a lot more to tell.
Keira Knightley’s performance is easily the best part of this film and reason enough for you to see Colette. She gives an incredibly bold performance that is compelling and interesting. Hers is one of the strongest performances I’ve seen this year and it will stick with me as one of her best to date. This is a complex character and Knightley’s performance showcases Colette’s transformation so well. She truly embodied Colette’s spirit and you watch as she changes from a sort of doe-eyed, country girl with whit into a confident, independent woman making her own rules and decisions. Dominic West also gives a notable performance as Willy. I hated him from the beginning, which I think is a good thing. There were plenty of times where I found myself laughing at his character and to West’s credit. Willy was so intolerable, selfish, entitled and downright pathetic that a part of me also loved him. West is so great at balancing the parts of him that paint him as a villain while still sustaining his humanity. His character felt like a real person rather than a villain who is larger than life.
As a whole, Colette is a thoroughly enjoyable. Despite the few issues I had with the screenplay, I still found myself wrapped up in these unconventional characters. The performances are why I was initially drawn to it and they more than met my expectations. It’s a period drama that will stay with you for more reasons than one.
4 out of 5 stars
Directors: Wash Westmoreland Writers: Richard Glatzer (screenplay by), Wash Westmoreland (screenplay by), and Rebecca Lenkiewicz (screenplay by) Starring: Keira Knightley, Dominic West, Eleanor Tomlinson, Fiona Shaw Release Date: September 21st Rated: R Runtime: 1 hour and 51 minutes