Arts

Film review: Keira Knightly shines in Colette, a tale of the hard fought battle for parity

Keira Knightley and Dominic West in Colette
Damon Smith

BASED on a script by director Wash Westmoreland and his late husband Richard Glatzer, Colette lovingly details the true story of the French novelist, who challenged the supposed limitations of her gender in early 20th-century Paris.

During the film, one male writer argues that irrefutable facts should never get in the way of a good yarn.

"It is the hand that holds the pen that writes history," the author suggests.

Westmoreland crafts his pages of feminist history and creative endeavour into a handsomely appointed battle of words between Keira Knightley's dutiful wife turned trailblazer and Dominic West's egotistical and domineering husband.

The balance of power shifts subtly between them over the course of almost two hours, beginning with the discovery of one of his affairs.

Colette's spouse has the audacity to claim that he is genetically predisposed to stray from the marital bed.

"This is what men do. We are the weaker sex," he professes.

That's certainly true through Westmoreland's lens because Colette draws strength from the various women around her to plough her own creative furrow, sometimes against the grain of public opinion.

Knightley's moving, studied performance captures the tenacity of a fragile bloom, who grows to love her imperfections and thorns, and uses them wisely to honour the words of her mother: "Trust no-one but yourself".

Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (Knightley) marries well regarded author Henry Gauthier-Villars (West), who operates under the pen name Willy.

He is under intense pressure to deliver a new work but prefers to devote his time to dalliances rather than penmanship or his wife.

When Willy discovers Colette's gift with words, he encourages her to document her formative years on the page – with some artistic licence for colour – and takes credit for her first book, Claudine A L'Ecole.

The saucy tale of a 15-year-old girl's rites of passage becomes a sensation and Henry encourages Colette to pen further adventures for her heroine, Claudine.

Over time, she becomes frustrated that only Willy visibly profits from her ink-stained hours of toil.

"I need credit for my work," rages Colette.

"Without the progenitor, there would be no Claudine!" forcefully counters Willy.

The aggrieved wife refuses to remain silent and speaks out with support from lover, noblewoman Mathilde de Morny (Denise Gough).

Beautifully shot by cinematographer Giles Nuttgens, Colette savours the central character's metamorphosis, culminating in her crowd-pleasing years as a music hall performer, smeared with greasepaint.

Knightley and West are delightful sparring partners and Gough brings a slow-burning intensity to her gender-fluid paramour, who wears trousers in an era of skirts and politely heaving bosoms.

British composer Thomas Ades's orchestrations underscore the hard fought battle for parity and respect.

COLETTE (15, 112 mins) Drama/Romance. Keira Knightley, Dominic West, Denise Gough, Eleanor Tomlinson, Fiona Shaw, Aiysha Hart. Director: Wash Westmoreland.

RATING: 7.5/10

Released: January 9 (UK & Ireland)

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