Colette had a daunting task: to defy gender norms and explore how an overshadowed artist can forge her own identity. The well-assembled biopic’s messages of empowerment are refreshingly authentic. But January sees the release of two other female-led period dramas. The far wittier and more salacious The Favourite is a lot more fun, and Mary Queen of Scots has a fresher cast in Margot Robbie and Saoirse Ronan. It will be difficult for Colette to stand its ground in such company.
Country girl Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette’s lifestyle dramatically changes as she ditches rural Burgundy for the cosmopolitan Parisian high-life of her charming husband Henry (performed by Dominic West with gusto). Under the instruction of her husband, Colette writes a successful, semi-autobiographical novel that inspires further instalments, stage adaptations and even a classic haircut – perhaps the Star Wars of early 20th Century France.
Yet the books are released under Henry’s publishing moniker “Willy”. It doesn’t take long to realise that the talentless “Willy” is little more than a dick. He’s an adulterer who unashamedly takes credit for his wife’s work. Colette’s refusal to write further novels for Henry is met by him forcibly locking her away until she conforms. She must seek artistic and physical freedom through new career opportunities and romantic exploration, a difficult task even before accounting for the restrictions faced by women at the time.
Despite a standout story, Colette is frustratingly less than the sum of its parts. The writing is quick-witted and sustains comedy throughout. The production values are strong, with detailed sets, well-shot scenes and beautiful costumes. Knightley is impressive in the titular role, a truly and unexpectedly entertaining performance. Despite all of this, the film lacks a stylistic edge that would make it more memorable. It’s a film that fans of the genre will enjoy, but for most will probably prompt indifference.
The creators of Colette, who separately worked on Still Alice and Carol, hoped to build awards buzz by touring film festivals, from Sundance to London. Cate Blanchett was nominated for an Oscar for Carol and Julianne Moore won an Oscar for Still Alice. Even if this current awards season was less competitive, it would still be unlikely for Knightley’s solid performance to draw significant attention. Colette is a good film, but its story is the only feature that stands out. If you see just one period drama this month, let it be The Favourite.
Colette is in cinemas now.