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Film Review: Colette

22 January 19 words: Alicia Lansom

Wash Westmoreland’s Colette sees Kiera Knightly return to her roots in a Parisian period drama, but this time with a little more bite...

Director: Wash Westmoreland

Starring: Keira Knightley, Fiona Shaw, Dominic West

Running time: 111 mins

Set during the Belle Époque period, the film tells the story of Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, a young country girl from Burgundy whose appetite for the larger world throws her into the arms of a much older writer named Willy (Dominic West). His charm and talk of a glamorous life in the country’s capital captures the interest of young ‘Gaby’ and the pair soon marry, much to the shock of Willy's high society friends. Spending their nights in Paris’s salons the pair seem happy and in love, but slowly the mirage of a fairytale life in the city fades as Gaby discovers that Willy has been unfaithful.

Momentarily fleeing back home, Gaby is hurt but, with the promise of a more honest and open marriage from Willy, she agrees to go back to the city. But upon her return she discovers another of her husband’s hidden secrets, that he is in fact a literary fraud who forces others to ghostwrite his stories. Soon enough Gaby is persuaded to join the ring of writers who work for Willy, but the stories she pens of her old school days are quickly written off by her husband, dismissing her tales as too feminine. However with Willy in desperate need of money to pay for his gambling debts and his luxurious lifestyle, he chooses to release the books known as the “Claudine” stories under his own name.

The short story becomes an overnight sensation, capturing the minds and hearts of the young women in France, much to the shock of the publishers. Quickly becoming drunk on the success of being ‘the toast of Paris,’ Willy demands Gaby continue writing the series against her will, locking her away in their country home. This imprisonment forces Gaby to write multiple Claudine’s, with each becoming more successful than the one before, spawning an array of beauty products, fashion trends and even a theatre production that sees Claudine take centre stage.

Colette suffers as many biopics about writers do, with many sequences struggling to be cinematic

Although not publicly acknowledged as her own writing, the books' reputation becomes Gaby’s source of power, rebranding herself as ‘Colette’ and cutting off her curls into an androgynous bob. Colette’s newfound sense of identity and a talk of encouragement from Willy leads her to spending the night with a rich housewife from Louisiana, who unbeknown to her is also sleeping with her husband.

Upon the discovery, the pair seem to strike an unspoken deal of an ‘open marriage’, which leads Colette to pursue to her passions away from the shadow of Claudine on the underground bohemian theatre scene where she begins a relationship with a transgender man known as “Missy”. Becoming increasingly estranged from her former life, Collette discovers her own path far away from Willy’s insatiable appetite for fame and fortune. But with the Claudine novels unable to function without their partnership, the pair must remain united.

Visually, Colette suffers as many biopics about writers do, with many sequences struggling to be cinematic. Even with the help of a Parisian setting and period costume, the films intimate portrayal of the characters’ lives makes for lack lustre viewing. But the film does triumph in Knightley’s depiction of the author, turning from a sprightly young girl into a woman with fierceness and a voice. Dominic West’s performance as Willy also triumphs, portraying the writer’s difficulties with self image and female success.

Offering little hint of a traditional period drama, the story of Colette chronicles a famed writer who discovers her womanhood and power in her own right which overall makes for a refreshing and enjoyable watch.

Did you know? The location shoot in Budapest was so hot that actor Dominic West wore a water vest underneath his costume.  It functioned like a car radiator, circulating cool water around his body. 

Colette is screening at Broadway Cinema until Thursday 24 January

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