Pop the cork and celebrate Haley Bennett in Widow Clicquot, a fast-paced and sexy biopic of the woman known as Madame “Veuve” Clicquot, or by her actual full name, Barbe Nicole Ponsardin-Clicquot, who triumphed over all odds to become the force that created and brought to the world the leading brand of Champagne. The film premiered at the Toronto Film Festival.
Serving as a producer with her Cyrano director Joe Wright (along with Christina Weiss Lurie), and taking on the title role, Bennett anchors a plush and gorgeous period film set against the Vineyards in France circa 1800, with a story that begins with Barbe Nicole at age 26, widowed by the sudden tragic death of her husband Francois Clicquot (Tom Sturridge) who, though manic and excitable, managed to build a dream of a vineyard and the creation of a new Champagne and was joined by his wife and mother of their daughter in the quest. We start with her dressed in black and mourning, but also determined to carry on her husband’s vision, one that she will prove to be the unstoppable engine in taking it to the next level.
Although Wright has directed numerous period films of this stripe, including Pride & Prejudice, Anna Karenina, Atonement, and most recently Cyrano in which Bennett starred, the directing reins on this one are turned over to Thomas Napper (Jawbone) who does a splendid job in bringing to life this vivid period in France. The screenplay is by Erin Dignam who came up with the story with Christopher Monger all based on the best seller The Widow Clicquot by Tilar J. Mazzeo.
It is no spoiler to say Francois dies tragically due to a wrenching illness as we see his corpse right off the bat. Napper chooses to tell their story and love affair in frequent flashbacks mixed with the present day efforts of Barbe Nicole to take over the business, not just because she is his widow but also because she is a true visionary when it comes to creating the singular brand that would carry the Clicquot name to this very day. She was a true innovator as we see, but also had to fight prejudice against the idea that a woman could be in charge. There are many obstacles along the way, first and foremost convincing her father-in-law Philippe Clicquot (Ben Miles), the major investor in the company, to let her take over after the death of his son. This is complicated by acts of nature with the vineyards, and other obstacles that Barbe Nicole faces along the way. Helpful is wine merchant Louis Bohne (Sam Riley) who is a supporter, if not automatically agreeing to sell her wine in France. Eventually this relationship turns to the bedroom, adding another sizzling element to the story. Also proving to be key to her cause is her husband’s accountant, Edouard Werler (Anson Boon) who testifies on her behalf at a titular court hearing designed to take the company out of her hands.
There are all sorts of intrigues and drawbacks, including the Napoleonic Wars that prevented the Clicquot champagne from distribution in France, but at its heart this is the story of a determined and talented woman who, though helped by men, stood on her own as one of the first female entrepreneurs. Her true marriage in life was to the vines. Bennett is superb here, and her unique look for the role makes it appear like she just stepped out of a vintage painting of the time. Both Sturridge and Riley as her amours and partners are perfectly cast, and Sturridge in particular gets a real showcase for his talents. The cinematography by Caroline Champetier is stunning, all on French locations if not the exact spots where the events actually took place. Bryce Dessner’s score suits the period beautifully, as do all the other production elements. The brisk 90-minute running time is another plus as these period dramas often wear out their welcome with a languid pace, not the case here.
Title: Widow Clicquot
Festival: Toronto Film Festival (Discovery)
Sales Agent: WME Independent
Director: Thomas Napper
Screenplay: Erin Dignam
Cast: Haley Bennett, Tom Sturridge, Sam Riley, Ben Miles, Anson Boon
Running Time: 1 Hour and 29 Minutes