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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 16 December 2018

Review: 'Colette' takes the stuffiness out of the period drama

Wash Westmoreland takes a bohemian approach to a traditionally restrained genre

Keira Knightley in Colette. Courtesy Front Row Filmed Entertainment
Keira Knightley in Colette. Courtesy Front Row Filmed Entertainment

When Colette opens up with Keira Knightley’s titular heroine awakening in a watercolour-like period bedroom, dappled sunlight filling the room, a cat nonchalantly grooming itself on the bed, and the clipped English accents of her parents calling from downstairs, you could be forgiven for bracing yourself for a BBC-style corset ripping period piece fit for Sunday prime-time viewing.

It soon becomes clear, however, that there will be no Mr Darcy, and no simpering young lead maiden here. The restrained politeness of the household is soon shattered when Dominic West’s bohemian novelist Willy bursts in direct from Paris, lambasting the supposed theatrical and literary greats of the day, while playing all the right moves for courting 20-year-old Colette in front of her parents.

We soon learn he needn’t have bothered however – Willy and Colette are already involved in a passionate affair, making it clear that, when it comes to her desires, she has no time for social niceties.

The pair are quickly married and whisked off to Paris, where we learn that, despite Willy’s reputation, he is in fact both broke and largely untalented. The “novelist” is essentially the editor-in-chief of a ghost-writing factory he operates from his home. With his works faring poorly in sales terms, Colette enters the fray to save the day with her autobiographical smash hit Claudine, about a country girl who finds herself in the buzz of Paris’s art scene, and embraces it with abandon. The book, and its hit sequels, are published in Willy’s name.

The film is sure to draw comparisons with Glenn Close’s movie, The Wife, but it is rather different. While both deal with similar subject matter, Close’s oppressed spouse is a thing of pity, at least until she finally breaks out of her bondage. ­Colette is quite the opposite. She does face the same ignominy of her husband receiving credit for her work, but the gender politics angle is muddied by the fact that she is but one of a whole team of writers her husband leeches from, and far from suffering in silence like Close’s loyal wife, she takes her revenge by indulging in every nefarious activity Paris had to offer at the turn of the last century, successfully taking to the stage of the Moulin Rouge along the way. Colette is a bon viveur of the highest order as, to be fair, is her cheating, novel-stealing husband and this is a tale of a life lived, rather than one stymied by the era’s attitude to women. Willy, on the other hand, doesn’t come across so much as an evil patriarch as someone who is on to a good thing, and intends to make the most of it, and why not?

Dominic West in Colette. Courtesy Front Row Filmed Entertainment
Dominic West in Colette. Courtesy Front Row Filmed Entertainment

Based on the true story of Sidonie Gabrielle Colette, who eventually achieved fame as a novelist, journalist and actress having divorced Henri Gauthier-Villars, pen name “Willy,” director and co-writer Wash Westmoreland essentially delivers an origins story. Could Colette II: The Famous Years be on the cards? Possibly.

The film is an entertaining, unstuffy period piece. It won’t leave you stunned, it doesn’t teach us a great deal about the attitudes or politics of the era, and Knightley’s performance, while a solid portrayal of a woman who knows what she wants, is unlikely to pick up the same Oscars buzz as Close’s virtuoso turn in The Wife. But it is a thoroughly enjoyable portrait of a woman who knew how to live life in a period when life was very much there for the living.

Colette is in UAE cinemas from tomorrow, Thursday December 6

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