A biopic with all the usual problems, this somewhat disappointing drama nonetheless features Keira Knightley in one of her best roles.
Portraying beloved French author, actress, mime and taboo-buster Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (1873-1954) with much fire and humour, Keira compensates for some glum handling and hardly sumptuous design, and shows just how startling and scary Colette must have been to even the most Bohemian of Parisians.
Nevertheless, she’s introduced as Gaby, a meek bookworm in a small country town who learns much about passion and independence from her progressive Mum Sido (Fiona Shaw) but still winds up marrying a sexist show-off simply known as Willy (Henry Gauthier-Villars), a name that proves unintentionally funny, even if he is played fairly well by Dominic West. Willy fancies himself a veritable one-man multi-arty industry, even though he outsources his creative work to others (and naturally takes all the credit and most of the money), and he treats his new wife like a fool and has affairs simply because that’s what men do, they can’t help themselves and it’s very much the done thing. Yes, that old excuse.
When Willy decides that he needs a new novel, he encourages her to secretly write it for him, and the first in what become a series of autobiographical ‘Claudine’ books prove hugely successful among young Parisian women, something all the stuffy blokes in the publishing world find baffling. When they keep running out of money, Willy forces her to write more and more, and as they’re understandably driven apart she finds solace in acting, and an intimate relationship with Mathilde de Morny (Denise Gough), who gets around town in men’s suits at a time when such a thing was apparently illegal.
Colette certainly deserves her own biopic (she’s especially celebrated for the novel Gigi, later an Oscar-winning film), but this isn’t quite it, and if anyone else but Keira had filled the titular role it surely would have fallen in a heap. She brings plenty of spirit, and mostly sees you past the fact that, once again, so many unflattering aspects of the subject’s life have been deliberately omitted.
But all that is for another day, if not another film.
Colette (M) is in cinemas from December 26