A country girl without a dowry named Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (Keira Knightley) marries a Parisian and self-proclaimed ‘literary entrepreneur’ named Henry Gauthier-Villars (Dominic West). Henry, who more commonly goes by the name ‘Willy’, employs a number of ghost writers and convinces his wife to write for him too. She pens a series of novels around a character named ‘Claudine’ which are based on her childhood and life in Paris. The books are an immense success and Claudine becomes a cultural icon. Colette feels frustrated at getting no recognition for her work. She starts to defy sexual and social ‘norms’.
From the outside, ‘Colette’ might appear to be a typical costume drama given its period setting and lead in Keira Knightley. However, just as the titular character makes bold fashion choices, rebelling against – and eventually inspiring – the Parisian fashion she is surrounded by (costume designer Andrea Flesch deserves a lot of credit here), so too is ‘Colette’ much more than your typical, melodramatic costume drama.
The true life story of Colette is a fascinating one, and a lot happens in the film’s 110 minute running length. The story propels forward in time and never dawdles. ‘Colette’ also benefits from having an excellent director in Wash Westmoreland, who previously helmed Julianne Moore in her Oscar-winning performance in ‘Still Alice.’ ‘Still Alice’ and ‘Colette’ share little in common except that both see female protagonists endure huge challenges and major changes in their personality. Watching Colette grow from a romantic, naïve country girl into a modern, metropolitan, inspirational woman is engrossing.
Aside from the misstep that was ‘The Nutcracker and the Four Realms’, and cameo roles in the last ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ and ‘Red Nose Day Actually’, Knightley’s career has been quiet since her heyday in the 2000s. As Colette, she proves how far she has progressed as an actress (remember when she couldn’t stop pouting?) to become the bona fide Hollywood star she is now. Opposite her is the imposing Dominic West, who makes for a fitting on-screen partner. He perfectly captures the manipulative and snide nature of his character, able to turn on the charm and attract women instantaneously.
While the aforementioned coming-of-age element is interesting to watch, the film’s dissection of marriage may be its most compelling aspect, thanks to the forceful yet balanced performances of Knightley and West. The bond that forms between two people when they become husband and wife is sharply examined. They can’t help but be drawn to and dependent on one another, even when one half of the couple is wicked. ‘Colette’ also looks at what challenging sexual and gender norms in early 20th century France entailed. In that respect, there are numerous layers which viewers can pore over in the film.