REVIEW / BIOPIC DRAMA
112 minutes/Opens Feb 7/3 Stars
The story: A young woman from small-town France marries her father's army buddy and they settle down in Paris. The new wife is Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (Keira Knightley), a woman intimidated by her older husband's cosmopolitan ways. Willy (Dominic West) is a literary figure known as much for his bon vivant lifestyle as he is for his books. She starts writing fiction, under his name, in a bid to stave off financial ruin. In years to come, she will be known for her books, the most famous of which is Gigi, on which the 1958 hit musical of the same name is based.
There are biographical movies in which everything builds up to The Moment in which the main character goes from ordinary to extraordinary.
Knightley's character, in contrast, evolves in small but significant stages: from drab country mouse to hesitant author to toast of Paris and taboo-breaking symbol of female emancipation.
There is never a dull moment in her transition from a woman afraid of sticking out to a rebel whose affairs at once scandalised and fascinated the city. The creators of this story suffer from an embarrassment of riches, not least visually, because the timeline covers the inter-war period when Paris was boiling over with new ideas in music, art and literature. Thankfully, there is little desperate name-dropping of the "Hi, Picasso, I'm Hemingway, and this is Dali" variety.
In fact, most of the names spoken of here are lost to time, among them Colette's husband Willy, played here by West with appropriately aggressive bonhomie. In one of the film's numerous nods to the modern world, Willy is a brand, an author who puts his name on the work of the unknowns who sign their rights to him.
Director Wash Westmoreland made his name with Still Alice (2014), the diary of Alzheimer's disease that earned Julianne Moore a Best Actress Oscar. Knightley does some of her finest work yet in this film, playing a woman who emerges from her shell, socially and sexually. She is a product of liberal Jazz Age Paris and her own fierce passions. Despite her fame, she pays a price for her unconventional lifestyle.
Tonally, Westmoreland keeps things tidy and restrained - perhaps too much so. The more lurid and tabloid-worthy Colette's life becomes in the bedrooms and theatre stages on which she based her later career, the more the reins are pulled in.
Respectful and tasteful? Yes, but it would have been better if this biopic's storytelling style matched the boldness of the woman it seeks to portray.