Echoes of the film Haifaa al-Mansour’s tepid Mary Shelley biopic should have been reverberate through Colette, which sees Keira Knightley lead her best film since 2014’s The Imitation Game. From director Wash Westmoreland, this period drama uproots the early promise of corset clichés to deliver a more satisfying exploration of gender restriction and rebellion. It helps too that the lavish production aesthetic makes for delightful viewing.
Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (Knightley) is but a dainty country girl as the film opens, in 1892, and a far cry from the famed Parisian sensationalist she will one day become. An author, actor, journalist and unstoppable force of gung ho bravura. Later, under the nom de plume Colette, she will gain renown as the writer of such works as ‘Gigi’ but here she is the provincial plaything of would be intellect and high brow critic Henry Gauthier-Villars (Dominic Cooper), himself better known by the pen name ‘Willy’. What will later become clear is that the most of his works are ghost written.
As Colette’s parents – including the ever-wonderful Fiona Shaw – discuss the feasibility of their match, she and he canoodle in a nearby barn. Within a year, Colette and Willy are happily married in Paris, albeit whilst cavorting among the pretentious elite and wracking up debt. Things take a spiky turn when Colette receives an anonymous letter that exposes her husband as a philanderer. Rushing back home, she is told by her mother ‘Trust no one but yourself’. By the time she returns to Paris, Colette has found her voice and is ready to be heard.
Among the joys of watching Colette is the transformative appeal of Knightley’s performance, which almost seems to mirror the star’s own career trajectory. Across the course of the film, Colette‘s self-empowerment is embodied through a profound awakening to her own abilities, captured in Knightley‘s nuanced expressional shifts and a subtle drop in the register of her voice, and a forthrightness well ahead of her time. The more she finds herself, the more her independent sexuality is permitted to bloom. Her growth from subservient to dominant lends the familiar biographical trajectory a backbone stronger than might be expected from period fare, all building to an exhilarating theatrical climax. More expected is the lush musical accompaniment of Thomas Adès and warm cinematography by Giles Nuttgens that, once combined, add up to a very handsome production indeed.
Though her talent is eminent, and recognised by Willy – who forces her to write under lock and key and then takes her work for himself – Colette finds her identity consumed and suppressed, simply because ‘Willy is a brand and because women writers don’t sell’. Of course, there’s irony here. Under her husband’s name, Colette’s first three novels are so hugely popular that they spawn merchandise and a cult of celebrity obsession. The texts themselves prove to be deeply sensual expressions of Colette’s own life, her lovers and the tempestuous marital relationship she shared with Willy. In the most unusual of the film’s affairs, Colette and Willy betray each other with the same woman, this being Eleanor Tomlinson’s fabulously wealth Louisiana socialite Georgie Raoul-Duval. Whereas Willy find’s his wife’s attraction to women appealing, there are double standards in his perception of a man’s role in sexuality: ‘we’re slaves to our urges’.
Such emotional complexity drives the film towards its gratifying conclusion with eloquence and a flair for modernism. Westmoreland first conceived his script sixteen years ago with the aid of his now late husband, and Still Alice co-writer Richard Glatzer. It is a pity that Glatzer was never able to see its completion for Colette is a triumph.