Keira Knightley’s fourteenth period drama sees her taking on the role of Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, the most famous female French literature writer of all time. Originally from the country, after marrying the much older successful writer Willy (Dominic West) she is whisked off to Paris, where she is absorbed into his decadent lifestyle.
Although his name is on his books, it is not in fact Willy who does the writing – he has an underpaid team of scribes to do it for him. He soon co-opts Colette into said team, and the ‘Claudine’ novels that she produces become wildly popular. Initially the couple enjoy their success, but Willy’s refusal to let Colette have her authorship made known drives a wedge between them. Not helping are his many affairs. When Colette starts having affairs of her own, however, she begins to get the courage that she needs to stand up for her work. And herself.
A husband putting his name to books written by his wife. Sounds familiar right? Unlike the similarly themed The Wife, which was released in cinemas a few months before, Colette is brimming over with life. Glenn Close seethes quietly, but Keira Knightley explodes into vibrant rage.
She’s never been better. Colette takes Knightley through various stages in the author’s life – ingénue, devoted wife, workhorse, lover, publishing sensation – and she injects them all with power and poise. The defiant set of her chin, the wryly contemptuous look in her eyes; she really is perfect in the part.She has an intriguing match in Dominic West, who here is as bombastic and unrefined as she is smart and elegant. Their complicated relationship is nicely drawn – he isn’t a complete villain, only a man who is a whole lot weaker than his wife. Colette never doubts that they loved each other, however unconventional and often damaging that love may have been. In a film that can veer too far into the melodramatic at times, it’s an admirably nuanced perspective on the marriage.
Also admirable is the treatment of Colette’s bisexuality. Whilst her first romantic interaction with a woman (Eleanor Tomlinson, attempting perhaps the worst Louisianan accent ever committed to film) is played for drama, her romance with gender-fluid Missy (Denise Gough) is treated with utmost sensitivity. Colette doesn’t shy away from the scandalized reception of their relationship – their first kiss in public causes a literal riot – but it does put a lot more emphasis on the love they shared, and how nourishing that was for its titular heroine.
Most of all though, the movie is just pure fun. Taking place in lavish Parisian drawing rooms, theatres and restaurants, with opulent costuming and a luscious orchestral score, this period drama is about as sumptuous as they come. That, together with the sparky verbal jousting of Colette and Willy, a career-best performance from Keira Knightley, and the positive representation of LGBT relationships, makes Colette a good time all round. Now I’m off to check some books out of the library…
Colette is available on Digital Download now and on Blu-ray and DVD from 13 May 2019.