Despite not having put a foot wrong over the last decade, Keira Knightley has had a tricky relationship with certain critics who, for some reason, continue to ignore the fact that she has come leaps and bounds since her starring role in Gurinder Chadha’s Bend It Like Beckham in 2002. In the case of Colette, Knightley’s latest costume drama, I’m pleased to report that this might finally be the career-defining role which is likely to put an end to any doubt surrounding her acting abilities once and for all.
In Colette, director Wash Westmoreland (Still Alice) presents a wonderfully understated period drama which charters the life of one of the most iconic female writers of the early 20th century. Born in Yonne, Burgundy in 1873, Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (known to her readers simply as Colette) was an openly bisexual French author best known for writing Gigi, a novella which was the basis for the film and stage production of the same name. In France however, Colette was mostly known for her sapphic erotic novels, as well as the hugely popular Claudine stories, a series of a books which became a sensation when they were first published at the turn of the century.
We first meet Colette (Knightley) as a young woman still living with her parents in an idyllic countryside setting. After a short and passionate courtship, Colette marries Henry Gauthier-Villars, AKA Willy (Dominic West), a famous writer and publisher several years older than her. After her subsequent move to Paris, Colette soon grows tired of Willy’s philandering and drinking ways, and despite frequenting some of the French capital’s most prestigious literary salons of the belle époque, the young bride can’t help but feel like a fish out of water.
When she is enlisted by Willy to write a series of stories about her girlhood experiences, Colette finally finds a new lease of life. However the couple’s relationship is soon rocked by Willy’s refusal to credit his talented wife publicly, despite making huge profits from her writing.
Wash Westmoreland who co-wrote the screenplay with his recently deceased Still Alice co-writer (and real life husband) Richard Glatzer, offers a story which is not only perfectly paced and fantastically well devised, but he is also able to bring the belle époque to life in most ingenious way. Offering both Colette and Willy as flawed characters, the director is able to convey a real sense of change in societal attitudes, all the while pointing out the continued undermining of female artists.
Keira Knightley surpasses all expectations as Colette, she offers the author as someone who is as passionate as she is level-headed. Her ability to convey the authenticity of a woman who refused to settle for second best, goes to show that there is more to the actress than the usual costume drama fodder. Managing to capture the true spirit of a feminist icon in action, Knightly shows also that she is capable of far more than she is usually given credit for.
For his part, Dominic West gives another faultless performance as Willy, whom he depicts as a pompous and belligerent drunk who still manages to maintain a degree of charm and is able to commend sympathy despite all his flaws. Elsewhere, Denise Gough is a revelation as the Marquise de Belbeuf, who would later become Colette’s lover and life companion.
Overall, Wash Westmoreland has done a great job in bringing this enigmatic figure to the forefront without ever diminishing her mystique or iconic status. He offers a genuinely gripping and thoroughly enjoyable storyline which is elevated by its impressive cast, and a screenplay which never feels the need to spoon-feed its audience.
Colette is part of the 62nd BFI London Film Festival which runs from 10 – 21 October. Tickets available now from www.bfi.org.uk/lff. The film is due to be release on the 11th of January, 2019.