Director: Wash Westmoreland
Cast: Keira Knightley, Fiona Shaw, Dominic West, Robert Pugh
Watch Colette online in the UK: iTunes / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Virgin Movies / eir Vision Movies / TalkTalk TV / Rakuten TV / Google Play / Sky Store
Keira Knightley and period dramas go naturally hand in hand. Not because she’s typecast, but because they’re both terminally underrated. Colette, though, is a sparking, shining example of why both should be held in the highest esteem.
Knightley is fiercely brilliant as the young eponymous lady, who is wooed by literary tycoon Henry Gauthier-Villars (Dominic West). More racketeer than raconteur, he makes his money by marshalling a factory of ghost writers, each one churning out words under the pen name “Willy”, while he takes all the credit. It’s a dastardly forward-thinking approach to the writing world of 1890s France, but he meets his match in Colette, who is even less beholden to the trappings and conventions of the period.
Sucked into Willy’s machine, she pens a coming-of-age novel about a young schoolgirl, Claudine, which he dismisses as too feminine. But when it soon becomes apparent that not only is she a better writer than him, but readers also really, really like her work, the stage is set for Colette to walk into the limelight. Willy, though, doesn’t let her, and as he slides back into the womanising ways that made his name, she fights to get out from under his ego and reclaim her identity – an identity that’s half-suffocated by her husband and half-suffocated by her own creation.
It’s a wonderfully complex character, and the script – by Wash Westmoreland, Rebecca Lenkiewicz and the late Richard Glatzer (Still Alice) – doesn’t once shy away from that, allowing Colette to mature from naive arm candy and begin reclaiming her own life story. She changes her hair to something more befitting of decades to come, she begins to learn dance, and she dives into experimental, independent theatre, no matter what the response is from Henry and the audience. Her influence and impact ripples through the whole film, from her own costume (superbly designed by Andrea Flesch to convey her evolving autonomy) to the appearance of wider society, which becomes so obsessed with Claudine that people start to imitate her.
And yet, while Colette grows in stature throughout the runtime – think of this as a more outspoken cousin to Glenn Close drama The Wife – the film’s strength lies in the way that it doesn’t then dismiss Henry altogether. Dominic West delivers one of the best, and most understated, turns of his career to date as the philandering, loathsome man, who depends on Colette as much as he wants to use her – and, eventually, is so captive to her work that he is asking lovers to dress as Claudine. They have an unconventional relationship, and that allows for the introduction of other key players into the story, from Eleanor Tomlinson as a debutante, Georgie, and Denise Gough as the well-off, unabashed cross-dresser Mathilde de Morn, with whom Colette has a long-running affair.
As these power balances, and gender dynamics, shift and evolve, Colette becomes more and more fascinating. For all of its nuance and depth, though, director Wash Westmoreland juggles his themes and identities with a light, quick pace, a lavish understanding and celebration of intimacy in all its forms and disregard for social and genre norms that’s exhilarating. The end result is a cracking period drama, delivered with a brazen wit that its heroine would be proud of. You can’t give higher praise than that.