Few contemporary actresses seem to possess a penchant for period pieces quite like Keira Knightley. Since appearing as Elizabeth Bennett in the 2005 big screen version of Pride and Prejudice, Knightley has featured in historical dramas such as Atonement (2007), The Duchess (2008) and Anna Karenina (2012), often delivering performances that are singularly better than the material with which she has had to work. In Colette, Knightley again finds herself taking a step back in time – to the early years of the 20th century on this occasion – and delivers another terrific turn as a writer and performer who must fight for the recognition she deserves in the face of societal constraints and a husband who is reluctant to relinquish the acclaim and financial return that her work brings him. The first part of the film is exactly the story that Knightley has famously declared she would not want her daughter to watch; a narrative in which a young woman is ‘rescued’ by a man. In this instance, it is country girl Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette who is saved from a dreary rural existence by the charming Willy (Dominic West), a writer of sorts who whisks her away to live in Paris.
It isn’t long, however, before she comes to realise that life in the big smoke isn’t everything she imagined, with little expected of her beyond looking pretty and accompanying Willy to the various soirees he attends. A dedicated libertine who doesn’t see wedlock as a hindrance to his propensity for screwing around, Willy actually writes very little of the work he publishes under his name, hiring others to furnish him with material for his books and, when runs out of money and ideas, he turns to his wife for inspiration. At one point, Willy locks Colette in a room and demands that she write. The book that Colette produces is a semi-autobiographical novel about a brazen country girl named Claudine which becomes a cultural phenomenon and delivers Willy a financial windfall and the social status he so conspicuously covets. Whereas Willy is able to charm his wife into accepting an open marriage, he is far less successful at convincing her that his name must adorn the books because “nobody reads female writers”. Daring to demand recognition for her work and, amid a growing sense of discontentment, Colette sets out on a course of artistic and romantic adventure that takes her beyond the page and onto the stage to emerge as a pioneer in women’s rights.
In the era of #MeToo and #TimesUp, this is a timely story of empowerment and determination in the face of entrenched sexism and the subjugation of women. Colette simply refuses to conform and finds herself in a serious relationship with Mathilde de Morny (Denise Gough), a noblewoman whose on-stage kiss with Colette causes all manner of apoplectic outrage. Knightley seems to genuinely relish portraying a woman living out the strength of her convictions and she plays Colette with passion and purpose. It is exhilarating to see Colette burst forth from the constraints of her marriage, delivering a delicious thrill as she beats Willy at his own game, in more ways than one, not the least of which is that she would go on to be nominated for a Nobel Prize in Literature (although this occurs long after the period covered in the film).
Working from a script he wrote with his late husband Richard Glatzer and Rebecca Lenkiewicz, director Wash Westmoreland (Still Alice) ends the film long before Colette achieved her greatest successes – such as writing Gigi in 1944 – but that only makes for a more intimate, but no less insightful, examination of a woman who used her talents to fight the patriarchy. The costumes from Andrea Flesch, the cinematography by Giles Nuttgens and the score courtesy of Thomas Adès combine to make Colette a deliciously dazzling delve into the spirit of a young woman daring to be heard.