One of the things that constantly strikes you about Colette is how its story is simultaneously so of and ahead of its time. Following a profoundly intelligent bisexual woman who was a literary trailblazer – both critically adored and commercially sensational – and whose best friend and lover was a trans man, its 1890s setting seems hardly to matter until you’re reminded that all her novels had to be published under her husband’s name. It’s a remarkable contrast made possible by the remarkable woman it’s about – Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (Keira Knightley). Unfortunately, like most artist biopics, Colette can’t quite do its subject matter justice, but this is still an entertaining example of the genre.
Following Colette’s life for around 15 years – the years in which she was married to roguish Parisian intellectual Willy (Dominic West) – Colette essentially takes two paths through the period. One focuses on the writing of the raunchy, wildly successful Claudine novels, the other on Colette and Willy’s marriage and their various affairs. Of course, it’s the romance that is most compelling – for all their historic importance, it’s incredibly hard to make the physical business of writing a book emotionally or visually interesting, a trap that Colette falls into on a few occasions.
Director Wash Westmoreland has been developing this project for nearly two decades, writing the first draft of the script in 2001 with his late husband Richard Glatzer, but there’s little sign of a difficult development on screen. The tone is consistent, always set to ‘wry’, and Westmoreland’s vision is a clear one. There’s little ambition to transcend its genre trappings, and though this does mean that Colette is stuck on ‘good, not great’, it also means that there are few glaring flaws. Poldark’s Eleanor Tomlinson has a very broad and distracting Louisiana accent as unhappily married heiress Georgie, but Westmoreland makes up for this by giving her the best scene, a very funny montage of both Colette and Willy cheating on each other with her.
Other than Georgie and Colette’s later beau Missy (Denise Gough), the supporting cast fades into the background to the point where recognising returning characters becomes a bit of a challenge. Knightley, however, delivers one of her best and most assured performances yet in the lead, including a highly entertaining Egyptian-themed dance number that is fun both on its own merits and for reminding you of Toast of London’s similar scene.
Dominic West is, of course, great as Willy, charming and witty enough to make you believe Colette would fall for him even as he uses her for his own gain and fritters their money away. It’s one of his best film roles – though obviously doesn’t touch the pinnacles of his TV work – and adds layers of nuance to Colette’s world. Conventional bad guys don’t belong in this story and while this compassion is to be commended, it comes at the expense of a righteous anger that could have fuelled something more unique or exciting.