Review: 'Colette', Keira Knightley Blazes A Trail As The Literary And Feminist Icon

The wait has been too long for a major big screen biopic on feminist and LGBTQ icon Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, but now is the right time for it to have happened. While set in the late 19th century into the very early 20th, its themes of sexual freedom and female agency parallel today's women's movement, as well as the push for greater LGBTQ representation in Hollywood. That it's also a compelling period piece featuring genre stalwart Keira Knightley is just another feather in Collete's cap.

Directed by Wash Westmoreland and co-written with his late husband Richard Glatzer, Colette has the graceful visual trappings of a costume drama but is driven by an electric, erotic mood. You feel it right from the start, as a young Colette steals kisses in the barn with her suitor, Willy (a skeevy Dominic West), the nickname for famous writer Henri Gauthier-Villars. Later it would be Colette who would become known by her singular nom de plume, but early on she was just a naïve girl from a small French town in Burgundy. It isn't long after their marriage that Colette smartens up to the ways of the world, and to the ways of men, when she finds out the caddish Willy has been having an affair.

While she quickly gets over Willy's infidelities, his other shortcomings are less easily overlooked. Willy hasn't written a hit book in years, but he spends like a drunken sailor on women, booze, and gambling. His entrepreneurial gimmick is to hire others to write books under his name which he then takes the credit for. It isn't long before he enlists Colette to do the same, mostly out of financial desperation, and her series of Claudine books would go on to become a sensation. Drawn from her own personal experiences as a schoolgirl, the series captured the thoughts of women of the era who longed for something more. And Willy soaked up all the adulation for so vividly expressing what his female readers could not in polite society.  Of course, he knew nothing and cared nothing for these things.

Colette was the real Claudine, and yet she always stood adjacent to it while Willy expanded on its brand. Claudine became a stage play, was considered for adaptation at the dawn of cinema, and was seen on products all over France. Much of the fetishization of the schoolgirl trope began with Claudine, for better or for worse. To break free from Willy's control, Colette begins exploring a life of her own outside of their marriage, and embracing her true sexual desires with other women. It's as Colette begins her evolution into the revolutionary figure we see her as now that Westmoreland's film really takes off. Colette and Willy begin to separate, with her starting a relationship with Missy (Denise Gough), a woman whose masculine dress and demeanor had scandalized French society. But Colette's biggest challenge to Willy and the status quo is her demand that the latest Claudine book have her name included in the byline. He, of course, refuses, but the power is no longer solely his.

While we've grown a little too accustomed to Knightly in these costume dramas, she is especially gifted at capturing their elegance, and the quiet strength in many of the female heroines. This is the best such role she's had since Anna Karenina, but what I like about this performance is her outward spirit and fire. Westmoreland's story is very much a first act, and that can leave you feeling unsatisfied, especially when the captions pop up explaining the impact of Colette's future writings. With Knightley's illuminating performance you wish Colette afforded her the opportunity to bring the author's many accomplishments to vivid life.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5