Hot Take: A showcase for Keira Knightley’s talents in a provocative role. You know it’s a period piece but it feels so fresh at the same time.
If you don’t know who Colette is (I didn’t), it won’t make this period biopic from writer/director Wash Westmoreland which showcases the talents of Keira Knightley and Dominic West any less interesting. Actually, it might add to the intrigue. Having little exposure to previews of the film, the provocative nature of the story of a young French girl who marries a successful Parisian writer who then becomes one of his ghostwriters and launches a series of sexually explicit novels around Claudine, a young country girl who ventures to Paris. The film digs into issues of gender equality and expectations around sexual proclivity which continue to remain relevant today despite the film’s period setting. It’s Knightley though that shines more than the story in one of the more impressive performances of her acting career. It’s likely not quite Oscar worthy but it is a reminder of what a talent Knightley is. For her performance alone, the movie is worth seeing and the biopic’s ability to rise above the standard expectations of the typical nature of a biopic isn’t a bad secondary reason to check it out.
In Colette, young Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (Knightley) weds Willy (West), an established Parisian writer who foregoes a large dowry one would expect during that time period to marry the country girl for love. Once she moves to Paris, she quickly finds out that Willy’s fast lifestyle has put the pair in financial peril despite his frequent success as a writer. Though Willy does very little of his own writing, his name brings credibility and when the money dries up yet again, Willy turns to Colette to write for him. Reluctant at first, Colette pens a novel based on her past experiences which Willy initially dismisses but after a second, more tantalizing draft, Colette’s novel Claudine is published under Willy’s name and the novels find more success than any of Willy’s previous work. As the Claudine novels grow in popularity, so does Colette’s sexual exploration which leads to Colette finding interest in same sex partners which Willy allows as it seems to fan the flames of Colette’s creativity which spawns more Caudine novels and more success for Willy.
The layers of Colette are what make the film so intriguing. On the surface, it appears to be a biopic but it’s so much more as there are discussions of gender equality and glimpses into how far we’ve come (and how far we actually haven’t come) since the time period depicted. It also shows Colette’s role in the advancement of more equality between the genders. There’s a lot to unpack in the film but the run time never feels overly bloated and the film moves along more briskly than expected at times. The film also features a more than capable supporting cast of actors you’d likely not remember from anything else.
It’s the time of year for movies like Colette to flourish. The film is much better than 2017’s Tulip Fever which featured Alicia Vikander in a role that mirrored Knightley in some ways but lacked the depth or gravity of the Colette role. Maybe it’s a stretch to compare the two but it’s easier to see why a film like Tulip Fever would get made when the end result could have been a more compelling film like Colette. It’s hard to argue Knightley’s success as an actress especially with her run in the commercially successful Pirates of the Caribbean films. However, none of those films were ever a true test of her talent. Not only was Colette that, it’s also a testament to why we should look at Knightley as one of the more talented performers currently acting and it’s a treat to see her in this role.
It’s a woke take on the run of ’90s period pieces we’ve become accustomed to.
No matter how hard you try, anything set more than 100 years ago makes you want to nap.