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Colette review - cookie cutter feminism is still entertaining with Keira Knightley as the lead

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Verdict: Keira Knightley shines as the lead in this somewhat contrived biopic of French novelist Colette.

A country girl who marries in to Paris high society, Knightley is at home in period dress, and takes the audience with her effortlessly on her journey of adjustment. The smoky opulence and metropolitan lifestyle is wonderfully atmospheric, contrasted with train journeys home to the quiet of the country.

Dominic West pitches his performance as Parisian author extraordinaire Willy to perfection. His charm and wit makes it easy to see why Colette fell for him in the first place, while his increasingly uncomfortable controlling behaviours and general sleazy aura develop alongside Colette’s budding independence and sense of herself.

The script is tight, and Knightley is complex and varied as she delivers with ease both Colette’s steel and her softness. As she comes to terms with both her sexuality and her creative prowess, the agency Colette displays in forging her own identity is the crux of the film, and is certainly the most engaging part of it. These are the moments the audience can sense writer-director Wash Westmoreland's Still Alice (2014) greatness.

British actress Eleanor Tomlinson struggles with her American accent, but otherwise plays off Knightley well as Georgie Raoul-Duval, Colette’s first real affair. Gratifyingly, their relationship isn’t fetishised by the film nor the camera lens. The respect in the framing makes for a tender and emotive viewing experience.

The most important of Colette’s lovers portrayed in this film — Missy, the Marquise de Belbouf — is, though the terminology was not such at the time, nonetheless a trans man portrayed by a woman. Perceived as a gender non-conforming woman by everyone except Colette, who respects his choice of pronouns, it’s certainly a missed opportunity to have a trans actor play the role.

Their infamous Egyptian pantomime is more bizarre than anything to witness on screen, and though their relationship is certainly portrayed as being based on genuine mutual affection, defiance in the face of bigotry could also be construed as wanting desperately to cause a scandal.

The framing of Colette’s life is certainly done with an agenda — to push a very old-fashioned textbook brand of feminism which sees her empowering herself by leaving her husband and living a sexually liberated life with her non-traditional partner. The reality of Colette’s life is far more complicated — she left Missy and married 2 other men, the first of whom she divorced after having an affair with his 16 year old son. She was 50 years old. 

All that certainly doesn’t fit the girl-power narrative of the film, and that’s what ultimately falls flat about it. Though the performances are brilliant, the black-and-white morality is far too simplified. In this film, Colette is an innocent and naive girl who is taken advantage of until she discovers her own power, and utilises it to free herself from her not quite evil but certainly disdain-worthy husband. She is always right, never does anything questionable, and therefore is robbed of her complexity. 

Despite all this, it’s certainly an enjoyable film to watch — it simply whitewashes over the parts of the story that don’t fit. Much like the character Claudine becomes an entity entirely removed from Colette despite being based on her own experiences, so Colette (2018) is wildly removed from the historical figure.

Colette is in UK cinemas on January 11th, and plays at London Film Festival on October 11th.

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