Keira Knightley plays a talented writer who grows tired of her husband taking credit for her groundbreaking novels.
Keira Knightley has long been associated with period dramas after roles in Pride & Prejudice and Atonement, and once said she typically prefers historical pieces offering “very inspiring characters” rather than modern-day stories which often promote “distasteful” portrayals of women.
In her latest film, Colette, the actress is doing what she does best against a backdrop of France in the 1900s, playing what must be her most inspiring character yet.
Knightley plays real-life Nobel Prize nominee Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, who is born in the French countryside in 1873, and gets propelled into Parisian society life when she marries Henry Gauthier-Villars – aka Willy – played by Dominic West.
Gabrielle has no time for her husband’s pompous friends or his infidelity, and after making him commit to an honest marriage, she discovers a new purpose when Willy suggests she write a novel for him based on her own childhood.
After making some adjustments to her “feminine” literature, the book is published to wide acclaim – but only under his name.
Gabrielle writes a number of other books and her ‘Claudine’ series becomes a national phenomenon on the scale of Harry Potter, with merchandise, a theatre adaptation and even talk of making it into a movie, while Willy receives all the acclaim.
Even after dropping her first names and rebranding herself as Colette, the true author isn’t receiving the profits or credit her good-for-nothing husband is enjoying for her work.
However, after meeting and starting an affair with the intriguing androgynous Missy (Denise Gough), Colette starts to realise that even though Willy has her on a “longer leash” than other wives of the time, it’s still a leash.
Knightley and West work brilliantly together to capture all sides of the marriage. Willy is by no means a good husband, but thankfully he’s no bawdy caricature.
West brings so much pizzazz you can’t help but laugh when Willy tries to talk his way out of his bad behaviour or says something outlandish and sexist that we know today to be false.
Though it’s easy to assume that no woman in the 1900s would say boo to a goose, Colette doesn’t take any nonsense from her husband.
She shouts and storms off, which means Knightley is able to bring a feistiness you wouldn’t expect in a period drama.
She also brings plenty of sensuality, and it’s refreshing to see a woman of this time displaying confidence in her sexuality without any internal moral conflicts.
It’s also commendable that this story is more complex than a cut-and-dry case of plagiarism, as Willy turned out to be a big help to Colette’s success in a male-dominated publishing industry.
Director Wash Westmoreland keeps the story fun and flowing with some very amusing direction; in particular, a sequence following Colette and Willy’s simultaneous liaisons with the wealthy American Georgie Raoul-Duval (Eleanor Tomlinson) is very funny.
Surprisingly, the movie is weakest when it comes to the relationship between Colette and Missy.
The film would have you believe that meeting Missy was a pivotal moment in Colette’s life, as it’s from this point that she tries to establish some autonomy by beginning a stage career and suggesting to Willy that her name be added to the cover of the next Claudine book.
However, this relationship and Colette’s subsequent fight for independence doesn’t get as much time and attention as deserved – possibly as a result of how much of the film is dedicated to her marriage.
Though the screenplay is somewhat uneven, it’s a pair of winning performances from Knightley and West with an uplifting story full of humour and hedonism that will undoubtedly please audiences.
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