Keira Knightley raises her game as the ghostwriting novelist Colette

Plus: Stan & Ollie.

 

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Keira Knightley is a performer of A-for-effort, Head Girl pluck rather than depth or range. But she gets far more to do and is infinitely better at it than usual in the brisk new period piece Colette, which charts the emergence and emancipation of the Belle Époque novelist Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette. The film begins with her literal awakening – she is roused from sleep in preparation for a visit to her Burgundy home by her intended, Henry Gauthier-Villars (Dominic West), the blustery author and critic whose work, most of it produced by a team of round-the-clock ghostwriters, is published to legions of wildly appreciative fans under the name of “Willy”. Moving to Paris, Colette becomes his employee as well as his wife, milking her memories for a novel about a schoolgirl named Claudine. Henry is initially dismissive – he lambasts her work while taking a leak, peeing on her parade as it were – but a spiced-up version of the book becomes his most popular yet, and demand is high for a follow-up. When she resists, he locks her in a room with only a pen and an escritoire for company.

As Colette chafes against her husband’s control, the picture relishes the queer shape that her liberation takes: her affair with an heiress (Eleanor Tomlinson) who happens also to be sleeping with her husband, and her scandalous on-stage kiss with her new lover Missy (Denise Gough, patently auditioning for the lead in The Ellen DeGeneres Story). The film itself might have benefited from a dash of Colette’s own daring; in its cataloguing of explosive modernity (debates about the Eiffel eyesore, or early exercises in branding provided by Claudine merchandise), it seems on the verge of the sort of anachronistic mischief that Derek Jarman brought to Caravaggio or Edward II. It’s a cheeky touch, for instance, to have the characters converse in English while reading and writing in French, a comment perhaps on the way period pieces strain for sartorial or architectural authenticity while sacrificing the linguistic kind to the demands of commerce. Queerness sells; subtitles don’t.

But these hints of irreverence don’t amount to much, and the film’s pleasures are understated to the point of faintness. Maybe that’s why the viewer feels so appreciative of West as Henry, the rambunctious storm in this dainty, Sèvres porcelain teacup. Knightley raises her game in his presence, and the sparring as she shows Colette gaining in confidence gives the movie its rude blasts of energy. There’s a frisson of pleasurable irony, too, in the knowledge that this critique of the pitfalls of partnership should have among its midwives a real-life couple: Wash Westmoreland and Richard Glazter, the writer-director team who enjoyed their biggest success with Still Alice. Glazter, who co-wrote the script with Westmoreland and Rebecca Lenkiewicz, died shortly after the release of that last film but Colette can be seen as a “how not to” guide to working together, from a duo who knew how to so harmoniously.

Partnership happens also to be the subject of Stan & Ollie, which dramatises (and embellishes freely upon) the dying days of Laurel and Hardy. It is 1953 and the double act is embarking on a poorly attended UK tour of second-rate venues. Stan (Steve Coogan) is certain the live show will convince a film producer to back the Robin Hood comedy he is writing, which should propel him and Ollie (John C Reilly) out of another nice mess – gambling debts, health issues – and back to the glory days of Way Out West.

There isn’t a surprising shot or musical cue in the whole movie, but with performances this good you’d scarcely notice. Coogan and Reilly’s physical and vocal resemblance to their subjects is stunning without being slavish or clinical, and their rendition of “The Trail of the Lonesome Pine” is a happy marriage of affection, technique and flair. Most of all, they seem awfully fond of one another. Passing a long train journey by mapping out a new routine – “Can I poke you in the eye?” asks Ollie, to which Stan replies: “You can wring my neck” – they could be any married couple still in love long after the wrinkles have turned to trenches. 

Colette (15) dir: Wash Westmoreland
Stan & Ollie (PG) dir: Jon S Baird

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article appears in the 11 January 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit Showdown