Colette (2018)

Like a fine wine or cheese, Colette has aged well. Both the French author's body of work and the film her early years inspired have ripened with time; as depicted in the biopic, it took years for the world to realise that Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette was the architect behind the series of the acclaimed Claudine novels, originally published under her husband's name; and on a personal note, it wasn't until my second viewing of Colette, three months after attending the London Film Festival premiere, that my appreciation of Wash Westmoreland's biographical drama swelled.

When Colette (Keira Knightley) is used by her husband Willy (Dominic West) as a ghostwriter, her talents as an author are realised. Following the immense success of her Claudine novels, published under her husband's name, the pair becomes something of a celebrity couple -- but Willy's boorish behaviour and Colette's increasing confidence and sense of self threatens to expose their secret and alter their relationship.

Colette has been a film 17 years in the making but it couldn't have arrived at a more suitable moment. The film's extensive production process has arguably, rather accidentally, worked in the film's best interest; released in the spotlight of the #MeToo and Time's Up campaigns, there's an added relevancy to Westmoreland's period biopic about a woman discovering her value. Enriched with a timeliness that may not have felt so pronounced amidst a more expeditious production process, Colette's century-old story never feels misplaced in 2018. Westmoreland, Rebecca Lenkiewicz and the late Richard Glatzer's screenplay is razor-sharp, imbued with sensuality and sexuality, and scathing with puckish one-liners that would not be out of place in Yorgos Lanthimos' The Favourite: "I can read you like the top line of an optician's chart" is a personal highlight.

Bolstered by a charming performance that delicately captures the boldness of the novelist herself, Keira Knightley delivers a spirited turn - and arguably one of her greatest to date. While Knightley is no stranger to a period setting, as Colette she snarks and bites with an acidic tongue typically uncommon of a lady of the 19th century. Of course, some marvellous frocks and production design help to enhance the era but the vigour of Knightley's leading turn is never lost under the film's aesthetical flair. Carefully balanced to showcase the multi-faceted Colette, Knightley's demonstrates that she's no one-trick pony with her emotionally-abundant turn. Dominic West provides fantastic support, going to town with a purposely theatrical performance that seeks to emphasise the script's discussion of gender. It's absolutely hammy and brilliantly so, and while it may tip too far over into melodrama for some, it ensures that there's a lightness running throughout.

Less so on a rewatch but still noticeable nevertheless, Colette does drag its heels on a few occasions -no more so than during the transition from the second act into the third. Indulging in melodramatic tendencies a little too willingly, underwriting the bolder, more pertinent elements of the script in the process, the momentum begins to lapse in these later moments. Exasperated by a handful of awkwardly-placed scenes that cause it to amble somewhat towards a conclusion, Colette's pacing begins to weaken - conserved by performances that never lose their lustre.

At its strongest when it's playfully teasing and indulgently camp, Colette's powerful musings on gender, sensuality and sexuality are delivered in a thematically powerful and potent screenplay which makes no qualms for exploring more unorthodox themes and ideas within the genre. Bolstered by an exquisite lead performance from Keira Knightley and solid support from Dominic West, alongside decadent direction from Westmoreland, Colette is an undervalued gem. It's not perfect and it did take a second viewing to convince me that it was more than a stuffy period drama - but I'm glad to have realised my misunderstanding.


Summary: Keira Knightley may be no stranger to period dramas but Colette's powering musings on gender, sensuality and identity allows her to dazzle, with surprising pertinence in this century-old true-life story.