Colette. Directed by Wash Westmoreland. Starring Keira Knightley and Dominic West. Rating: 6 (out of 10)
Keira Knightley: no one else can rock a corset or wear a jaunty hat just so.
But these are the least of the skills the actor has brought to a string of strong female lead roles in such period pieces and literary adaptations as The Duchess, Pride and Prejudice, Anna Karenina, and the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, to name a few.
In Colette, Knightley pushes at the confines of historical drama with a look at France’s most famous novelist. Colette toils for years under the influence and nom de plume of her husband, finally railing against the moral and societal conventions of the time to reclaim her work and to find love with both women and men.
Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette was famous in the village for her long plaits of hair. She marries Willy (Dominic West), a man who served in the war with her father. Willy is a bon vivant with a long list of conquests in the city but Gaby is taken with him and the opportunity for escape that he brings; plus, with no dowry, her choices are limited.
“I want to be part of everything,” she pleads with Willy. Willy obliges, introducing his new wife to the artists and writers of Paris. Upon hearing of their marriage, a man remarks that Willy’s wild days must surely be gone, to which Gaby retorts “On the contrary, the wild days have just begun.”
Willy is actually Henry Gauthier-Villars: “Willy” is his nom de plume and the brand which he cultivates. A bon vivant literary entrepreneur, Willy has minions – including his new wife – do all the dirty work for him. (Under his name, of course.) When Willy can no longer afford to pay his writers and the creditors come calling, he enlists the help of Gaby – now going by the name of Colette – in writing a novel about her school days in the country, with a healthy dose of innuendo added for good measure.
Despite the fact that Willy resorts to locking his wife in her room until she produces the requisite number of finished pages, Colette continues writing. The “Claudine” series of books become a monster hit, for which Willy takes all the credit. But their seemingly happy, unconventional marriage is strained by serial infidelity and money troubles: thanks to Willy’s gambling the couple is perpetually broke, regardless of the cash flow. And Colette finds herself increasingly drawn to others in her orbit, including a wealthy American socialite (Eleanor Tomlinson, Poldark) and a ground-breaking androgynous countess (Denise Gough).
Colette is a girl who straddles two realities: born in the country, she can identify every tree, craves silence and eschews fine dresses for comfort. She longs for more, but can’t quite abide the shallow salon culture of Paris, either. It’s an honest portrayal of a woman’s search for her place in the world. Wash Westmoreland (Still Alice, Quinceanera) directs from a screenplay written by his late husband Richard Glatzer, who died in 2015 and to whom the film is dedicated.
But the life of a writer is not a glamourous one, on or offscreen, and despite the film’s rousing salon scenes and fresh-air country vistas the story still feels stuffy; even the love scenes are lacking passion. The result is a film that’s frequently overwrought and definitely overlong for the subject matter.
Kudos to Knightley for taking on yet another complicated and pioneering role. If only filmmakers could’ve injected more feeling to balance out the character’s ferocity, the better to have a sense of what was at stake for France’s Nobel-prize nominated novelist.