I saw Colette at Hyde Park Picturehouse, followed by a lovely Q&A with its director, Leeds’ own Wash Westmoreland, who offered some insight into how he and his late partner Richard Glatzer first devised the script in the early 2000s, long before their award-winning film Still Alice (2014) drew critical acclaim. It was a sell-out night that also welcomed supporting cast members Elinor Tomlinson and Jake Graf to Leeds! On to the review…
Colette makes an interesting counterpart to The Wife (2018). The current resurgence in reclaiming female narratives and of those previously silenced, has been a slow one to ignite (especially if this year’s Oscar nominations are anything to go by), but like The Wife, Colette is a timely story, that takes a microscope to how a person’s achievements can be co-opted by others.
It’s star, Keira Knightley shines as Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, a French writer and all-round annoyingly-good-at-everything person who through an advantageous but alienating marriage to a good-for-nothing Parisian literary “entrepreneur” played by Dominic West, essentially ghost-writes his most successful novels – the ‘Claudine’ series under his non-de-plume ‘Willy’ in the late 19th century.
Dominic West is at his best when he plays creeps (his turn in TV’s Appropriate Adult still haunts) , and as Willy, his villainy is disguised in ruthless and temperamental business acumen, playing the ‘a man must cheat, it’s in his nature’ card repeatedly until Colette decides to have a little on-the-side fun for herself…with, shock horror, other ladies! Elinor Tomlinson and the marvellous Denise Gough offer a spectrum of same-sex exploration for Colette in much more permissive Parisian Belle Époque literary circles.
Together, Colette and Willy become something of a celebrity couple in Paris, with their titillating books flying off the shelves and everything from hair products to shoe polish being emblazoned with the Willy ‘brand’. As their relationship and career successes intertwine, Colette and Willy are engaged in a constant battle to keep the lid on their own desire for recognition. At one point, Willy locks Colette away to make her write another hit. Its shocking but not surprising to see the escalation of cruelty that kept Colette at the mercy of her husband and “mentor”.
Through breathtaking costuming changes (an intake of breath for that suit did occur!) , we could track Colette slowly unbuttoning the constraints of societal convention and stepping away from the ubiquity of Claudine that seemed to whip France up into a frenzy. Knightley has rarely seemed so comfortable in a role (many who know me will know that I have, wrongly, not always been the biggest Keira Knightley fan over the years), and this is certainly her most engaging performance since The Duchess (2008). As Colette, she expertly manages to portray her as the timid, lovelorn provincial new wife to Willy and later, the dynamic driving force behind her own creative freedom, both on stage and later, by challenging her claim to the Claudine books.
To that end, it did seem as if the film concludes just as her story was about to get truly interesting, the ongoing dispute to get her name on the works she toiled for was something that occupied much of her life. However, as an insight into how women’s work has been appropriated throughout the centuries, it is a worthy, beautifully filmed, document of defiance.