There have been many films based on the literary works of Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, including Vincente Minnelli’s much-loved musical Gigi and Stephen Frears’s maligned 2009 drama Chéri, but few filmmakers have explored the life of the novelist herself. A revolutionary figure in the literary world, Colette was a bisexual French author who challenged the rules established by an oppressive patriarchal system and is remembered as a pioneer in women’s rights. Wash Westmoreland’s biopic focuses on Colette’s formative years and writing career up until the 1940s, and it does a lot right. The director relishes the Belle Epoque setting and does do a fine job of recreating the turn of the century Parisian scene, revelling in its opulence while critiquing its artifice. Colette’s gradual emancipation from enamoured country girl to empowered, boundary-pushing artist is believable, and Keira Knightley impresses in the role. Also, what seems initially like a broad depiction of her husband Willy by Dominic West is satisfyingly revealed as a theatrical façade to conceal the character’s deep-seated insecurities: he revels in the pretentiousness of literary circles, publishes her stories under his name, and we eventually see his mask slip without the character turning into a moustache-twirling villain.

The main snag is that while Colette looks great and its themes of empowerment and gender fluidity are timely, it plays it far too safe as a biopic. The complex story of this avant-garde figure was begging for a cinematic treatment that mirrored the controversial and iconoclastic nature of her life, but the film comes up short in this regard; dramatic stakes are often absent and displays of emotion feel unearned. The film also fizzles to an end in tropey fashion, with our tortured, frequently misunderstood protagonist finally getting the recognition she deserves and facing a standing ovation. It’s a conventional wrap-up that crops up in a great many biopics; its inclusion here only serves to reinforce the sense that Colette deserved a more daring depiction.

Colette | Directed by Wash Westmoreland (US, UK, Hungary 2018) with Keira Knightley, Fiona Shaw, Dominic West. Starts Jan 3.

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