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Review: Colette

September 28, 2018

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

The latest from director Wash Westmoreland, who helped guide Julianne Moore to her first Oscar in Still AliceColette is a biopic of French writer Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (Keira Knightley) that features a similarly awards worthy performance from its lead actress.

The film takes place at the turn of the 20th Century, and starts with Colette as a country girl who marries into money when she meets the charismatic writer and music critic Henry Gauthier-Villars (Dominic West), better known as Willy, and moves with him to Paris.

Seeking new material for his publishing house, Willy puts out a novel written by Colette that is loosely based on her own country life and follows the exploits of a girl named Claudine, but he publishes it under his own name. When her debut novel becomes a gigantic hit and the talk of the town, Colette struggles to gain proper credit for her work, with many suspecting that she is actually the mastermind behind what becomes a series of bestselling books.

The film starts off as a pretty standard period piece biopic, and takes a little while to get going, but the story reveals interesting layers as it starts to explore themes of repressed homosexuality and gender identity. As Colette embarks on romantic affairs with other women, these relationships find their way into her work, sparking chatter amongst readers and breaking down taboos of the time.

While Colette has a playful quality to it at times that recalls last year’s Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, the film also takes on serious undertones in its portrayal of a woman trying to both figuratively and literally emerge from the shadow that has been cast upon her by a male figure. The film only focuses on the beginning of Collete’s career, but it’s worth noting that she did go on to find acclaim under her own name, winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1948, and also writing the novella Gigi, which is maybe her best known work and was adapted into an Oscar-winning musical in 1958.

Keira Knightley is excellent in the title role, embodying a beneath the surface rage as she struggles to gain independence and credit for her work, and Dominic West brings an oiliness to his role that is both compelling and appropriately off-putting to watch. The film itself is handsomely made, with costumes and production design elements that are both beautiful to look at and appropriate to the era.

A version of this review was originally published during the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival.

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