Romantic creative partnerships by film law are a terrible idea. To look back to the beginning of 2017 alone, we’ve had films like The Wife, Cold War and Professor Marston and the Wonder Women which have all depicted collaborative success at the price of jealousy, oppression and ridicule. Disastrous for those involved, scintillating to those watching, things always falls apart.
Keira Knightley stars in this historical biopic helmed by Still Alice writer/director Wash Westmoreland, and it is yet another example of a marriage soured by artistic differences. Set in Paris in the early 1900s, it tells the story of famed French author Gabrielle Sidonie Colette (Knightley) and her turbulent relationship with Henry “Willy” Gauthier-Villars (Dominic West).
It was a dark but necessary period for Colette, who used her husband’s personal brand as a moderately successful author to stomp cracks in the surrounding patriarchy, first through ghost-writing his books, then through making her own work as a writer and performer. She is the definition of a trailblazer, so it’s a shame that this feels like much too such a safe role for Knightley. Her indignation is effortless and her charisma undeniable, but these are old tools taken from a box she’s been dipping into for a decade.
Her case isn’t helped by West delivering one of his brightest performances to date as Willy, playing the charlatan writer with a charm to which it’s difficult not to succumb. He even breaks wind in a way that’s problematically becoming. Colette is a film with good intentions, and it certainly takes pains to give a rounded account of the author’s auspicious origins, but sacrifices any fun in the process.
With The Favourite’s punk aesthetic and Mary Queen of Scots’ big theatrics, there’s definitely more scope to paint outside the lines with this new vein of female-focused biopics. This film would benefit by taking notes from its subject and doing the same thing.