sun 20/01/2019

Colette review - Keira Knightley thrives in Paris | reviews, news & interviews

Colette review - Keira Knightley thrives in Paris

Colette review - Keira Knightley thrives in Paris

Biopic of France’s famous novelist is a gripping and joyous watch

Talk of the town: Keira Knightley as Colette

In a telling scene midway through Colette, our lead is told that rather than get used to marriage, it is “better to make marriage get used to you.” In this retelling of the remarkable Colette’s rise, it is evident she did much more than that; by the time she was done, all of Paris was moulded in her image, and in the hands of Keira Knightley, it’s no mystery why.

When we first meet Colette, she is a wide-eyed country girl caught in a whirlwind romance with Paris lothario Henry Gauthier-Villars, better known by his penname Willy (Dominic West, pictured below). He’s full of bombast and opinion, never better than with an audience in the palm of his hand. Colette is understandably under his spell, and the prospect of joining him in the capital’s excesses is alluring.Dominic West in ColetteBut they both misunderstand each other. Willy is a showman, but there’s more than a little hot air in his reputation. His renowned writings are produced by a group of paid ghosts, and his protestations of love and freedom are hypocritically one-sided. But it is Colette that is the real unknown – Willy believes he’s bagged an enchanting naïf, a proto-pixie girl for the aspiring mentor. In fact, her abilities and insight go far beyond his own, and where she finds both him and his city hollow, she creates substance.

With debtors at the door, Willy suggests Colette writes a novel under his pseudonym, based on her childhood. The book, entitled “Claudine at School”, is a sweet portrait of country life, but with some salacious additions by his suggestion, it becomes the talk of Paris. Soon, a Claudine empire is built, making its "author" Willy and his “muse” Colette celebrities. It is a gravy train that he wishes to ride until it is dry, but the more Colette creates, the more she realises that Willy restricts, not inspires, her.

The two central performances from Kiera Knightley and Dominic West are engrossing. Colette transforms on screen, becoming wise to the workings of people and her own potential. She walks with a swagger, ready to grab whatever, or whoever, takes her fancy. Knightley has never been so commanding, towering over the blowhard Willy as she claims what’s hers. In one scene, she performs at the Moulin Rouge as an Egyptian queen. Knightley is spellbinding in the routine, presented in such a heady haze of music and editing that would make the true Colette proud.Keira Knightley and Denise Gough in ColetteWest for his part paints the cracks in Willy’s façade, a man undone by doubt in both his wife and his own character. He defines himself by the reputation he’s built, and when eventually even his libido fails him, he loses all perspective. It’s a credit to the script, written by director Wash Westmoreland, Richard Glatzer and Rebecca Lenkiewicz that these characters never fall into easy stereotypes. From their sexual exploits to raging clashes, nothing is trivialised and both remain authentic. They’re either partners in crime or sworn adversaries, held together by their shared project Claudine.

The film manages to cover a lot of ground without overbearing or desperately moving things along (e.g. Bohemian Rhapsody’s stilted dialogue). Conversations feel natural and the audience is trusted to read between the lines. The score from British composer Thomas Adès is sumptuous, bringing through Colette’s many shades with either lilting melody or driving discord.

Though some bemoaned another costume drama for Knightley’s CV, Colette is no frothy frocked fancy. It’s a powerful, cocksure celebration of one of history’s great novelists, performers and characters. It would appear she won’t be making an appearance at any major award ceremonies this year, but then she always preferred the grubby musical halls to high-class soirees anyway.

Add comment

Subscribe to theartsdesk.com

Thank you for continuing to read our work on theartsdesk.com. For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 10,000 pieces, we're asking for £3.95 per month or £30 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take an annual subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a theartsdesk.com gift subscription?

newsletter

Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters