Month: February, 2019

Colette

colettePart way through Colette, our lead says to her husband “I can read you like the top line of an optician’s chart.” It is an amusing but biting line signaling the refreshing winds of change that sweep through this proto-feminist period drama.  Don’t be fooled into dismissing Colette as yet another stuffy costume snore starring a type-cast Keira Knightley. No, this quick-witted and feisty feature crackles with energy and humour as it pits the forces of traditional marital dynamics against a lop-sided distribution of talent.

Set in Paris during the turn of the twentieth century, this is the true story of novelist Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (Knightley) and her marriage to Henry Gauthier-Villars (Dominic West). Willy, as he was affectionately known to his adoring public but latterly referred to by Colette as a “fat, smug, lazy, selfish bastard” was a patron of hedonistic excess and an “author” whom Colette dutifully ghostwrote for. Willy became a celebrated rock-star of the Parisian literary field despite his fragile empire being built on the duplicitous foundations of Colette’s writing talent. It is a familiar tale of sexist and professional treachery that will no doubt garner comparisons to the recent film The Wife (starring Glen Close). However, this is more than The Wife’s “behind every great man” story, as Colette dives head first into the sexual politics of a woman coming to terms with her autonomy and gender identity.

It is a simple story but with wonderfully complex characters that you can really sink your teeth into, and thankfully screenwriter Richard Glatzer (Still Alice) takes plenty of time to explore them.  The two leads offer vibrant performances that bristle with a pin-sharp wit as they boil in their volatile chemistry.  Knightly’s take on a blossoming woman in a society that demands feminine submission encapsulates a heady mixture of humility and rage as she bounces off West’s quite brilliant balance of bombastic bluster and faux naivety. 

Although the film’s somewhat rigid visual style doesn’t quite match the lively milieu of its characters, this thoroughly entertaining biopic is worth seeing for the two outstanding performances alone.

See my reviews for the NZ Herald here and for Witchdoctor here.

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On the Basis of Sex

You might have noticed the meme “Notorious RBG” bandied about recently; a humorous meld of Ruth Bader Ginsburg—a demure Jewish lawyer—and American rap artist Notorious BIG who is anything but. As this film neatly illustrates, Ginsburg’s dogged drive and determination for shaking up the establishment show that there is more truth to the meme’s apparent oxymoron than meets the eye. She’s diminutive in stature but a giant in the fight for gender equality.

On the Basis of Sex begins in the sixties with Ruth as a bright-eyed Harvard law school entrant with a gifting for the books and a firm belief in the power of change. It’s a volatile combination and her struggle with sexism within the male-dominated law fraternity was something her quiet resolve could not ignore. So she set about illuminating the lecturers, Judges and pundits who didn’t think sex-discrimination existed … rather successfully.

Spanning her life through to the seventies, the film settles down into a procedural court-room drama examining the Wiesenfeld case—a foundational case that Ginsburg used to bring about constitutional change to womens rights.

Felicity Jones (The Theory of Everything) walks a fine line between an authentic portrayal of the real Ginsburg—whose reserved and mild nature was never going to set the silver screen alight—and breathing new life into her persona for the purposes of engaging cinema. Thankfully, she finds common ground and delivers a performance that leans well enough on emotional drama while never losing sight of Ginsburg’s stoney temperament.

For the most part On the Basis of Sex adequately handles its material. Yet, conventionality is a sticking-point for a film that struggles to avoid riffing on some well-trodden clichés. Director Mimi Leder (Deep Impact) certainly doesn’t bring anything fresh to the cinematic bar despite having a seemingly solid screenplay to work with. Although Jones works hard to spice up the dry world of constitutional law, On the Basis of Sex remains superficially inspiring and lacks the venom of Notorious RBG’s reputation.

See my reviews for the NZ Herald here and for Witchdoctor here.