Colette

 

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A mainstream approach to the early years of a famous French writer.

 

Colette

 

It seems certain that reactions to this film will be divided. It is the work of Wash Westmoreland who with his late partner Richard Glatzer gave us 2014's Still Alice, a film of genuine artistic distinction. This new piece, dedicated to Glatzer's memory, uses a screenplay in which he played a part and a separate credit suggests that it was Glatzer personally who conceived the idea of a film dealing with the celebrated French writer Colette and concentrating on her early life: in effect this is the story of how a woman exploited by her husband, a man who published her first novels under his own name, found the strength to emerge as a fully-fledged talent in her own right.

 

Set between 1892 and 1905, this is a very French story and one can understand anyone who takes the view that it deserved to be told in an authentically French movie (indeed, although it was made for French television and is little-known in this country, Jacques Demy's Break of Day dating from 1980 did take Colette as its subject). Present it as here in English and with Keira Knightley (not an actress able to suggest a French temperament) and you have a film that asks to be taken on its own terms as a mainstream period tale. As such, I feel that it succeeds handsomely and, if to see shots of Knightley writing in French adds to the need to suspend disbelief, she does in fact suggest most persuasively a woman slowly coming out of her shell to become her own woman - not just as a novelist publishing eventually under her own name but as an individual confronting and then embracing her lesbian desires.

 

Take it for what it is and Colette is a good piece of filmmaking on all levels. It has fine production values, is well photographed by Giles Nuttgens and is admirably edited by Lucia Zucchetti. Westmoreland's use of music here is very adroit as pieces by French composers of the period mix with an original score by the noted composer Thomas Adès which blends in perfectly. As for the acting, the main focus is on the two leading figures, Colette and her manipulative older husband, Willy. In the latter role, Dominic West is commanding and careful to avoid becoming one-dimensional as he shows us a man of his times who feels that his wife, however spirited, has a subservient role to play. This aspect of the story encourages comparisons with the recent fictional drama The Wife and many audiences who appreciated that film will like this one, although as a mainstream attraction it remains to be seen whether or not some audiences over a century on are shocked by this film's sexual content. Others will undoubtedly welcome this frankness, appreciate a montage sequence which establishes the fact that both Colette and Willy separately shared the bed of an American married woman (Eleanor Tomlinson) and applaud the casting and performance of Denise Gough as Missy who would dress as a man and came to share Colette's life for many years.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Cast: Keira Knightley, Dominic West, Denise Gough, Fiona Shaw, Robert Pugh, Eleanor Tomlinson, Julian Wadham, Al Weaver, Shannon Tarbet, Ray Panthaki, Dickie Beau, Aiysha Hart, Rebecca Root, Arabella Weir, Johnny K. Palmer.

 

Dir Wash Westmoreland, Pro Elizabeth Karlsen, Stephen Woolley, Christine Vachon, Pamela Koffler and Michel Litvak, Screenplay Richard Glatzer, Wash Westmoreland and Rebecca Lenkiewicz, from a story by Richard Glatzer, Ph Giles Nuttgens, Pro Des Michael Carlin, Ed Lucia Zucchetti, Music Thomas Adès, Costumes Andrea Flesch.

 

Bleecker Street/30West/Bold Films/BFI/Killer Films/Number 9 Films-Lionsgate.
112 mins. UK/USA. 2017. Rel: 9 January 2019. Cert. 15.