Subverting the award-season-biopic tropes, Wash Westmoreland whips up a searing commentary on gender politics, misogyny, sexuality and identity.
By Ankit Ojha on September 21, 2018

‘Tis the season of biographies—falalalalaa-lalaalaalaa, naturally—where we celebrate showy physical transformations, rote episodic narratives, and that sweet, neverending footnote for an epilogue. Considering that, it’s easy to take one cursory glance at “Colette” and judge an entire book by its cover. That it stars Keira Knightley (“Begin Again,” 2014), front-and-center doesn’t exactly help it from presumptuous prejudice against another true-story film but don’t dismiss it just yet. Like its eponymous protagonist, the film has much more going on beneath the surface.

None of this is apparent in the film’s first fifteen minutes. Beat for beat, it—and to an almost sneaky level—follows most biopics’ strict, episodic format. It’s at the precise moment when you feel practically complacent and unengaged when director Wash Westmoreland (“Still Alice,” 2015) and co-screenwriter Rebecca Lenkiewicz (“Ida,” 2013) decide to pull the rug off from under your feet. From here onward, it’s scene after scene of filmmaking verve that’s as electrifying and subtly subversive as its subject’s transformation and (eventual) emancipation.

And it doesn’t stop there—the makers take their time establishing the supporting characters around Colette with patience and focus. Fiona Shaw (“The Tree of Life,” 2011), as the protagonist’s mother, barely has a few scenes in the movie, but the nuance she gives her character and the attention to detail its writing pays to her role is remarkable. In the film’s very first scene, Shaw’s Sido struggles to have her own voice amid two mansplainers—it’s triumphantly executed, and her restrained performance paves the way for the rest of the societal structure viewers would get to see in the following minutes. 

Before the Storm // (Left-right) Dominic West and Keira Knightley in a still from Wash Westmoreland’s Colette, a Bleecker Street, 30West, Bold Films, Number 9 and Killer Films film.

Shaw follows an unsurprisingly great Dominic West (“The Square,” 2017) as Willy, the flamboyant husband who isn’t reduced merely to a two-dimensional template oppressor. Willy’s personality has many different shades; his toxic misogyny is only a part of the whole puzzle. A lot is going on between his narcissistic demeanor and the occasional gaslighting. As detailed as it is, the makers do not specifically design the character for viewers to dislike. He might be a central conflict, but the film makes a worthy effort to inform the audience that he’s merely a byproduct of a broader, more sinister patriarchal narrative.

Among the many diverse people in the world of “Colette,” however, the two stars of this show—without a doubt—are Denise Gough (“’71,” 2014) and Knightley. Gough, in particular, is such a revelation. Her commanding presence in exuding Missy’s overall aura of masculinity is, hands down, the most balanced and realistic depiction of gender nonconformity I’ve seen in recent times. That the character arc feels relevant even today is terrific and terrifying. Westmoreland and Lenkiewicz don’t just treat her as a flat message, though—instead, what you see from Missy is a reminder of what privilege can be used for.

And then there’s the ever-dependable Knightley and the eponymous protagonist who shines bright with singularly inimitable confidence. Taking us through each of Colette’s four phases —the hopeful young adult, the loving wife, the oppressed artist, and the angry woman fighting for independence, both creative and sexual—she excels in making a gradual, organic difference with each step to match them. What viewers end up with, fortunately, is the journey of a woman toward empowerment and freedom from societal norms that possesses the power to render them breathless and with a strange desire to conquer the world.

With “Colette,” director Wash Westmoreland subverts flavor-of-the-award-season biopic tropes, diving deep into the flawed foundations of sociopolitical structures then. It’s a searing feminist commentary on gender politics, misogyny, emotional abuse, and the reclamation of one’s sexuality, a sneaky little beast that comes at you out of nowhere and stays with you long after you’ve left the cinemas. Highly recommended.