Colette

Cast: Keira Knightley, Dominic West, Eleanor Tomlinson, Denise Gough, Aiysha Hart

Director: Wash Westmoreland

Writers: Richard Glatzer, Rebecca Lenkiewicz, Wash Westmoreland


One of the great pleasures of going to see a new film is when you go in expecting it to be a retread of tropes and stories that you’ve seen before and it turns out to be something quite new. In the case of Colette, I was more or less expecting a 19th century remake of Big Eyes; the story of a woman with an extraordinary talent whose husband takes credit for her work while keeping her confined and silent. While that is pretty much the overall plot of Colette, the film has larger ideas on its mind and a more engaging way of going about them. Almost as soon as the film has established its master-slave dynamic between the main couple, the story promptly moves on from there to the part of the story it’s really interested in: the leading lady’s liberation. In a much broader sense, this is a film about challenging traditional gender roles and breaking free from the patriarchal constraints designed to ensure that women conform to the roles imposed upon them. The film is unapologetically feminist and relishes in telling its story through an unmistakably modern lens. It is a story of transformation and empowerment told with wit, ornate detail and terrific performances.

Directed by Wash Westmoreland and based on a script he wrote with Richard Glatzer, Westmoreland’s late husband and writing partner for such films as Still Alice, and Rebecca Lenkiewicz, Colette tells the story of Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (Keira Knightley), one of the most popular French writers of her day. As the film begins in 1892, we are at first led to believe that the teenaged Colette is little more than a simple, virginal country girl living a tranquil life with her parents (Robert Pugh and Fiona Shaw) in their picturesque, rural cottage in Burgundy. When famed Parisian writer Henri Gauthier-Villars (Dominic West), also known by his pen name Willy, vaults in with his wealth, charm and a respectably cordial proposal of marriage, the parents are readily impressed and eagerly approve of the union, completely unaware their daughter and her fiancé have been holding secret meetings in the barn for quite a while. They rendezvous later that day for another one of their trysts and we see that Colette is a little more worldly and independent than either we or her parents had taken her to be. She and her beau are soon married and off they go to Paris to enjoy a life of debonair fashion, fine art and saucy parties amongst the clique of French high society.

I suppose there are some who will feel that Willy should have been depicted in a more villainous light. It doesn’t take Colette long to learn that he is a plagiarist whose bibliography is actually the work of a team of writers on his payroll, he is a serial adulterer, a reckless spendthrift, a spotlight hog and he eventually proves himself to be an emotionally abusive husband. It would have been all too easy to portray him as an irredeemable monster and, at his core, maybe that is what he is but to frame him in that simplistic way undercuts the complicated relationship he shares with Colette and the role he played in creating the radical phenomenon that she would become. The film allows West to play Willy with all the wit and magnetism of a fashionable socialite whose every deed, utterance and gesture is a performance unto itself of a character, or a ‘brand’, that the man has created. For all of his many vices, it is Willy first sees something special in his wife and provides her with both a means of expression and a source of stimulation. That said, it is certainly more out of convenience for him than it is belief in her that he turns to Colette at all and it is very much his intention to remain in control of the whole enterprise, taking the credit for Colette’s work and forcing her (even going so far as to lock her in a room at one point) to continue writing after her work becomes a sensation.

There is love and genuine affection in their relationship, but there’s also jealousy, betrayal and conflict and all of it serves as fuel for the development of Colette’s literary voice. What started as an inequitable arrangement designed to keep her in captivity and subservient to her husband instead becomes the first step in Colette’s journey towards emancipation. When she becomes frustrated with her husband’s stifling dominance and constant paranoia that his far more talented wife is set on undermining him, Colette finds satisfaction elsewhere. Following her hypocritical husband’s cues, Colette begins sleeping with other woman, first the Louisiana belle Georgie (Eleanor Tomlinson) and later the nonconformist cross-dressing noblewoman Missy (Denise Gough). Even today in this modern ‘liberated Hollywood’ climate, it is astonishing how frankly and casually the film deals with its heroine’s blossoming queerness. While other films are tiresomely repressive or chaste in their depictions of LGBT romance and sex, Colette revels in the openness and looseness of the titular character’s sexual exploration. There isn’t even really a coming out moment for her; Colette’s proclivity for women is simply an extension of her character, a broadening of the enlightened, liberated manner that allowed her to become such a great writer.

Carrying it all the way through is Knightley in a career-best performance as a remarkable, revolutionary woman defiantly making her mark and asserting her identity and autonomy. It is in the film’s second half where she truly shines as Colette moves on from her life with Willy and carves out a passage for herself in whatever daring and provocative way she pleases. Knightley is both gritty and glamorous in the role; the film neither idealises nor fetishizes her nor does she ever come across as a passive force in her own story. The film can sometimes be a little too modern in its sensibilities which has the effect of simplifying some of the barriers that Colette had to overcome and smoothing the journey she had to make. There are enough bumps in the road to keep things interesting and it also helps that the film boasts some beautifully sumptuous sets and costumes and an evocative score accompanying it all. Westmoreland succeeds at telling the story he wans to tell, that of a woman who found her freedom and lived a fulfilling life on her own terms as much as any woman could possibly have done in 19th century France, and he does so very well. However it seems to me like there was a richer and more complex story to be told about a real-life figure who had much more to say.

★★★★

Advertisements

Tomb Raider

Cast: Alicia Vikander, Dominic West, Walton Goggins, Daniel Wu, Kristen Scott Thomas

Director: Roar Uthaug

Writers: Geneva Robertson-Dworet, Alastair Siddons


In the two and a half decades that Hollywood has been attempting to adapt video games into movies, the results have been mixed to say the least, ranging from weak to underwhelming to awful to batshit insane. There are a few in there that are pretty fun to watch despite (or maybe because) of how flawed they are (I would cite Angelina Jolie’s Lara Croft as one example of this), but so far there still hasn’t been an all out success. However, I think that Roar Uthaug’s Tomb Raider has brought us one step closer to realising that dream. It has its flaws, but for me this movie felt life the most competently made, narratively engaging, emotionally affective adaptation so far. The bar is admittedly very low, but I walked from Tomb Raider feeling like I had watched a good, exciting movie that had more thought and creativity put into it than anyone could have expected. It’s not Raiders of the Lost Ark, but it’s a baby step in the right direction.

Based in part on the 2013 game that rebooted the franchise, the movie follows Lara Croft (Alicia Vikander) a young Englishwoman with a privileged upbringing who stands to inherit her father Lord Richard Croft’s (Dominic West) business, wealth and estate following his disappearance. Believing her father to still be alive, Lara refuses and makes a living on her own as a bike courier. In the film’s first action scene we see Lara racing on her bicycle through the streets of London in a ‘fox hunt’. As she navigates the winding streets and dodges all the cars and lorries in her way, her stamina, quick-wittedness, and endurance are put on full display, as is her reckless nature. This incident gets her into trouble and she is bailed out by her father’s business partner Ana Miller (Kristen Scott Thomas), who reasons that the time has come to let her father go.

Upon gaining access to a puzzle box left by her father however, Lara is led by a breadcrumb trail of clues to a secret chamber in the family tomb. There she finds a message from Richard detailing his research into Himiko, a mythical queen who was said to possess extraordinary powers over life and death. Richard, anticipating that this expedition may get him killed, warns Lara to destroy his findings and not to come searching for him. There are no prizes for guessing what Lara does next. She sets out for Hong Kong in search of her father and hires Lu Ren (Daniel Wu), captain of the Endurance, to escort her across the Devil’s Sea to the island of Yamatai. On the way there, the ship gets caught in a violent storm and Lara is swept away and washed ashore. There she is found by Mathias Vogel (Walton Goggins), the leader of the expedition to locate Himito’s tomb and the man responsible for her father’s disappearance. Lara escapes and, lost and alone on the forbidding island, she must survive the perils of the jungle and learn the truth of what lies within Himito’s tomb.

In the game that provided the basis for this film, a greater emphasis was placed on Lara Croft’s character than in previous games and Vikander does a wonderful job of bringing her to life. This Lara is a more emotional person than action heroes are usually allowed to be. The affection she feels for her father is strongly evident, as is the pain she feels in his absence. She is both intelligent and sensitive and those are both sides of her character that the film is as keen to explore as it is her strength. The first time we ever see her kill a man, it is a moment that upsets her on a deep, personal level and she isn’t able to shrug the deed off the way that a more standard, one-dimensional action lead would be able to. It’s fairly typical of action films with female leads to try and make their protagonists stronger and tougher (i.e. more masculine) by giving them the clichéd personality traits we’d expect from a strong and silent killing machine like those Schwarzenegger and Stallone used to play. This movie however puts more thought into its main character’s emotional experience and presents the act of killing as an event that actually matters to someone who feels empathy.

Vikander also delivers an intense and committed performance, making you feel the physicality of every blow she’s dealt and every muscle she strains. What sets Lara Croft apart from, say, Wonder Woman is that she doesn’t have the strength or the constitution to overpower her opponents with ease. The movie thus has to devote much deliberation into figuring out how a woman can plausibly win the upper hand against foes who are physically bigger and stronger than she is and finds the answer in her speed, tactical thinking, endurance, and grit. This is indicative of the level of thought and the attention to detail that the previous Tomb Raider movies lacked and makes for a more compelling film where the physical and emotional experience of its main character is more visceral and more deeply felt. There are a ton of great action scenes that follow, the best of which for me was when Lara gets swept away in a river and narrowly avoids going over a waterfall by clinging herself to a rusted Second World War fighter jet hanging precariously over the edge. Her delivery of “Really?” as she sees the plane start to fall apart is worthy of Indiana Jones.

The movie does have its shortcomings here and there. There are a number of supporting characters who show promise in their first scenes but who never really get the chance to shine. Goggins, who is usually irresistibly enjoyable and wildly charismatic when he plays villains, is pretty forgettable as Vogel. A man who has spent years away from his family in search of Himito’s tomb and has lost his humanity somewhere along the way, there is a tragedy to the character that the movie never finds the time to explore. Another is Lu, a character who suffers from the same abandonment issues as Lara (having lost his own father in that same expedition) and who forms a non-romantic relationship with her built on shared experiences and mutual respect. He is pretty much sidelined in the film’s third act. There are also issues with plotting as the film takes a while to get going and is wont to drag when there isn’t some action taking place.

Still, even putting aside the standard set by video game movies, Tomb Raider is an overall well-made and often thrilling film. It has an emotional core in Lara’s journey as a character and her relationship with her father, and that gives the movie a point of focus that is so often lacking in these adaptations. The absentee father is no stranger to films of this type (even Indiana Jones tackles this theme), but it feels fresher here for having a daughter as the protagonist rather than a son. The efforts of Vikander and West also play no small part in making the story feel that little bit more affective. There is more effort at work in this film than was needed and it pays off not only in Lara’s character and story but in the action scenes as well. While there is still a ways to go before video game movies cease to be a cinematic punch line, Tomb Raider shows that the potential is definitely there. It is compelling, action-packed and surprisingly touching and it also brings to life one of pop culture’s most iconic and badass heroines.

★★★★