Review by C.J. Bunce
It’s the performances of the leading actors that stand out in this weekend’s theatrical release, Colette. Colette is a biographical story of an avant-garde couple in turn-of-the-twentieth-century France, famed authors who wrote under the pen names Colette (nee Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette) and Willy (nee Henry Gauthier-Villars), and the writing of four popular books by Colette that were published under her husband’s name: Claudine à l’école (1900), Claudine à Paris (1901), Claudine en ménage (1902), and Claudine s’en va (1903). In the film, directed by Wash Westmoreland, genre favorites Keira Knightley (Pirates of the Caribbean, The Imitation Game, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, Never Let Me Go, Domino) portrays the younger spouse Colette and Dominic West (Les Miserábles, Tomb Raider, The Hour, The Wire, 300) her very showy and ostentatious libertine husband Willy. As a tangent for Star Wars fans it’s a Naboo reunion–Knightley was one of Queen Amidala’s handmaidens and her decoy in several scenes, and West one of her royal guards nearly 20 years ago in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace.
In Colette Knightley and West have great rapport. It’s a mix of love and conflict that rises to the level of hatred, but along the way their chemistry is quite strong with a carousel of humorous moments throughout their relationship. It would elevate the writing too much to equate Colette and Willy with Beatrice and Benedick of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, but their back-and-forth repartee is quick and sharp. They are portrayed to have been a successful (at least financially) if not unorthodox pair. When Willy courts the much younger Colette in the opening of the movie he has already established fame as a writer (as an early James Patterson-type who took credit for the actual writings of a few employed ghost writers). But after gambling, over-spending, and other debts catch up to him he turns to Colette to pen the stories she has told him of her youth in pastoral France. Her work proves to be much more popular than anything he had ever written. Although he does pout a bit, he spends the large advance for the second book on a country house for Colette. Not quite Dangerous Liaisons (but close), their equal opportunity games and his spiraling debts ultimately bring their marriage to the breaking point.
Along the way their lifestyle begins to dip even beyond the hedonism and joie de vivre the Belle Epoque, Bohemian, and Decadent movements France was known for, as their marriage branches out to include others: two women (one for both, one for him), played by Eleanor Tomlinson (The Illusionist, Jack the Giant Slayer) and Shannon Tarbet (Inspector Lewis), and ultimately Colette leaves Willy for a third, acting partner Missy, played by Denise Gough (’71, Star Wars: Battlefront, Mass Effect: Andromeda). Some brief sex scenes and nudity account for the R rating. Although the film ends with the split of Colette and Willy, Colette would go on to be an early feminist icon, writing many more novels and stories, her best known would be Gigi, the 1944 novel that would become the famous Audrey Hepburn film (Colette specifically selected Hepburn for the role).
Although the film itself is not likely to draw recognition during awards season, Knightley and West’s performances are certainly worthy of consideration. West is dazzling as a self-aggrandizing P.T. Barnum type, and Knightley markedly changes throughout the film from quiet country girl to a confidant and independent personality. The banter between Knightley and West and the eccentricities of their story highlight the film.
Westmoreland’s direction and the production follows the Merchant Ivory costume drama school as tone is concerned. Don’t expect very high peaks or valleys in this script, and the story ends rather abruptly. Young composer Thomas Adès provides a tranquil musical score like Michael Nyman or Richards Robbins might have written in the 1990s. Oscar-nominated production designer Michael Carlin (for The Duchess, which starred Knightley) seems to get all the details of the era just right, assisted by the elegant and accurately re-created historical costume designs of Andrea Flesch (Budapest Noir, The Man Who Was Thursday).
Colette begins its nationwide release in select theaters beginning today, and opens in the UK January 25, 2019.
Editor’s Note: In case you missed Knightley and West in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, here’s how they looked nearly 20 years ago: