Review: COLETTE (2019)

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.

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Review: THE IMITATION GAME (2014)

Let me begin: Alan Turing was an extraordinary man. A relative unknown to the general public until recently, Turing saved and transformed the lives of generations to follow. A genius, an innovator and symbol of a world we’ve left behind, at long last we’ve begun celebrate his life, acknowledge his wondrous achievements and the devastating treatment he was subjected to towards the end of his life.

This is why The Imitation Game was so important. Every since I first learnt about this man, I’ve wanted to spread the word and somehow put into words how important he is (or should be) to everyone. I never quite managed it, either by fudging through the science-y bits or feeling terribly angry and saddened by his untimely suicide and persecution due to his sexuality. I was glad to hear that he had received an official pardon from our government and yet somehow infuriated that he even needed one. A pardon!? A pardon for what exactly? He deserved an apology, a vow, a promise to never go back, to learn and reflect. Thankfully, we got that. Now all that was needed was something far more articulate than me to get his story out there. A film with a star.

With The Imitation Game, we have one. Benedict Cumberbatch is riding on the crest of a wave at the moment and in this film he has the gravitas, an oddity and intelligence to portray Turing. Adapted from the biography by Andrew Hodges (a mathematician who has spent his life researching Turing’s story) and directed by Headhunters‘ Morten Tyldum, the film focuses on the years during World War Two when Turing and a team of academics were working at Bletchley Park, the top secret centre for code-breaking and intelligence. With the blessing of Winston Churchill, some of the greatest minds in the country were tasked with breaking the ‘Enigma’. The ‘Enigma’ being a machine which translated German naval and High Command messages into coded scripts which were impossible to decipher. To crack the code would save millions of lives on the front line, divert doomed merchant convoys and to ear-wig on military strategies direct from Hitler himself.

The crackpot team in the famed ‘Hut 8’ includes Stoker and Brideshead Revisited‘s Matthew Goode, Keira Knightley, Allan Leech (Downton Abbey). All are watched over by the ever-brilliant Charles Dance and Mark Strong. It’s an impressive cast, each with their chance to shine. Knightley in particular does well, playing a character who unearths Turing’s human side as well as demonstrating the gender barriers which did prevail during wartime- despite its perceived emancipation of women.  Though sketchily drawn, it is through her eyes we see Turing’s eventual breakdown and through her support, is able to invent a ‘thinking’ machine, capable of unlocking the ciphers of the Enigma machine. In short, the world’s first computer.

Cumberbatch is astounding. As is Alex Lawther, who plays a young Turing during his school-days. Bullied and teased in the harsh public school environment, Turing develops his first emotional attachment to another pupil, Christopher. We see him flourish; happy and in love just as fatal circumstances transform him once again. Flash-forward into Turing’s later life, he is forced to punish his own nature and spend his life with his new and only companion: his wondrous machine.

I suppose I was predisposed to love this film, but I so easily could have been disappointed, left with a movie manipulated and altered for Hollywood. Instead it’s an intimate film about one of the most important stories of the last century and a tale of a determined scientist we keep on discovering long after his harrowing death.

Please watch The Imitation Game, we owe him.