Directed by Still Alice‘s Wash Westmoreland, Colette is a biographical drama about French author Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, one of France’s most renowned female authors.
After moving to Paris in the late 19th century, Colette (Kiera Knightley) agrees to ghostwrite a semi-autobiographical novel for her sleazy, smooth-talking husband Henry Gauthier-Villars (Dominic West). The success of the book, not to mention subsequent others, slowly inspires her to make a name for herself and prevail over the societal constraints of the early 20th century.
Similar to Margaret Keane in the 2014 biographical drama Big Eyes, the film explores Colette’s struggle for creative independence from her husband, which comes after she had already put pen to paper and the decision to include her name was out of her hands. This reluctance to claim initial credit, as well as her readiness to write for Henry – using some of her personal memories to do so – hints that she is mostly submissive to his ego and ultimately sacrifices her own identity to appease him. This is only exacerbated by his libertine lifestyle, which jeopardises the couple’s professional and personal life.
This unassertiveness behind the film’s feminist message is not helped by Westmoreland’s mild direction and the uneven tone of the screenplay, which varies between Henry’s brash displays for attention to Colette’s school memories. Although the latter offers occasional witty barbs that hint their growing mutual frustration with each other, it – along with the cinematography – fails to make a lasting impression.
Even so, Westmoreland carefully develops Colette through her intimacy with friends, family and significant others. Superbly portrayed by Knightley, her gradual maturity during her marriage with Henry highlights her need to express herself, rather than be overshadowed by her husband and his chauvinist behaviour. West provides a great foil for Knightley, who feels his reliance on ghostwriters is almost excused by his ‘understanding’ of what’s popular.
Ultimately, Colette offers an evocative message with Knightley providing a career highlight performance. However, its lacklustre direction and dialogue cause it to fall short of being truly inspirational.
Director: Wash Westmoreland, Richard Glatzer (co-screenwriter)
Stars: Keira Knightley, Dominic West, Eleanor Tomlinson, Denise Gough, Aiysha Hart, Fiona Shaw
Runtime: 112 minutes
Country: US, UK, Hungary