Keira Knightley shines in bodice-ripping period drama Colette

by James Robins / 16 February, 2019
RelatedArticlesModule - Colette movie review

The story of Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, a heroine of French literature, focuses on her early struggles.

No one ever made a good movie about writing. Scribbling or tapping away at keys does not a gripping drama make. It’s the life of the scribe that matters: scandal, strife, experience. An Ernest Hemingway biopic would be unwatchable if it weren’t for the constant drinking and occasional plane crashes.

Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, the French woman of letters and Nobel nominee, crammed in about as much as Hemingway, her career spanning the charmed peak of La Belle Époque to the end of World War II. With Keira Knightley in the titular role, Colette charts her earlier years, from prim country girl to dedicated libertine.

During the film’s unpromising opening, she’s plucked from her idyll by handsome suitor Henry Gauthier-Villars (Dominic West), better known to Parisian society as “Willy”: a muckraker and connoisseur of popular filth, for whom the truth is something that always needs to be sexed up.

He introduces Colette to the city’s voluptuous charms: a demure Louisiana belle (Eleanor Tomlinson), saucy vaudeville acts, the transgender pioneer Mathilde de Morny (Denise Gough). But he turns out to be both adoring and manipulative. He publishes one of Colette’s novels under his own name, takes the credit for creating the semi-innocent, semi-Sapphic schoolgirl character of Claudine and bows alone for the applause of an enraptured audience. We’re in similar territory to the recent Glenn Close movie The Wife, or the rumours about Vladimir Nabokov and F Scott Fitzgerald.

Willy is no outright villain, though. His love for Colette is genuine, although selfish, earnest but blind. He’s a product of a scandalous age. And it’s here that Knightley, so familiar with these bodice-ripping period pieces, truly excels. She plays Colette with an irrepressible sense of dignity: rather than condone her husband’s philandering, she demands honesty. Rather than churning out Claudine novels, she runs off to the theatre.

In the end, it’s this portrayal of a self-assured talent with a vivacious desire for life that lingers longer than any of the racier scenes. Which, to be honest, aren’t that racy. Director Wash Westmoreland (Still Alice) prefers to leave the frilly nighties on. Colette is more intellectually stimulating than overtly seductive. The truly outrageous act (in the film’s era) is for a woman to claim an authoritative and unique voice for her own.

IN CINEMAS NOW

★★★1/2

Video: Transmission Films

This article was first published in the February 23, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

Latest

PM announces ban on all military-style semi-automatic weapons and assault rifles
103805 2019-03-21 00:00:00Z Crime

PM announces ban on all military-style semi-automa…

by RNZ

Ms Ardern pledged the day after the terrorist massacre that "gun laws will change" and would be announced within 10 days of the attack.

Read more
No mention of right-wing extremist threats in 10 years of GCSB & SIS public docs
103770 2019-03-21 00:00:00Z Politics

No mention of right-wing extremist threats in 10 y…

by Jane Patterson

There is not one specific mention of the threat posed by white supremacists or right-wing nationalism in 10 years of security agency documents.

Read more
Deirdre Kent: The woman who faced down the wrath of Big Tobacco
103798 2019-03-21 00:00:00Z Profiles

Deirdre Kent: The woman who faced down the wrath o…

by Joanna Wane

As the face of anti-smoking lobby group ASH, Deirdre Kent played a vital role in the smokefree New Zealand movement.

Read more
Māori leaders say acts of terror nothing new in NZ
103766 2019-03-21 00:00:00Z Currently

Māori leaders say acts of terror nothing new in NZ…

by Leigh-Marama McLachlan

Māori leaders are calling on New Zealanders to reject the notion that 'this is not us' in the wake of the Christchurch mosque attacks.

Read more
Cynthia Millar and the strange beauty of the ondes martenot
103723 2019-03-21 00:00:00Z Music

Cynthia Millar and the strange beauty of the ondes…

by Elizabeth Kerr

The sci-fi sound of the ondes martenot is playing a key part in the upcoming performance of an epic symphony.

Read more
Christchurch gunsmith warned police about white supremacists last year
103662 2019-03-20 00:00:00Z Crime

Christchurch gunsmith warned police about white su…

by RNZ

A Canterbury gunsmith living and working says he told police less than six months ago they needed to look at the rise of white supremacists with guns.

Read more
12 moments that show how New Zealanders have united in the face of terror
103665 2019-03-20 00:00:00Z Social issues

12 moments that show how New Zealanders have unite…

by Vomle Springford

In the following days after the Christchurch terror attacks, New Zealand has come together to support the victims of the shootings.

Read more
How modern art inspired the music of Anna Clyne's Abstractions
103649 2019-03-20 00:00:00Z Music

How modern art inspired the music of Anna Clyne's…

by The Listener

The works of the English contemporary composer feature in the NZSO’s forthcoming The Planets series.

Read more