Keira Knightley (“Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge“, “The Imitation Game”) in a period piece is nothing new. And I don’t mean that in a negative way, it’s a delight and comfort each time she appears in one, whether as the witty, free-thinking Lizzie Bennet in the English countryside or the tragic Anna Karenina in 19th century Russia.
Yet, we’ve never quite seen her in a costume drama quite like she is in “Colette.” She brings a certain confidence, intelligence and playfulness to her role here that feels different to her prior work in a good way.
It’s perhaps misleading to label this film a costume drama though, it’s more of a romp really. One that follows its protagonist through the literary and artistic circles of turn of the century Paris.
As the title suggests, the film tells the story of one of France’s most famous writers, Colette. It specifically focuses on the period of her life during her marriage to the charming, but domineering and penniless writer Willy, Dominic West (“Tomb Raider“, “The Square“) who introduces her to Bohemian Paris.
There she discovers new passions within herself (sexual and artistic) and begins writing. However, it would be quite a while before the hit works she produced during this time would be properly attributed to her as her husband takes credit for her wildly successful semi-autobiographical series.
At a certain point though she begins to push back and demands the respect and independence she deserves as a writer and woman.
All around this is a talented cast, but it’s Knightley’s film, and thank goodness for that. Even Cooper who is a strong co-lead and nails this volatile man, seems minor in comparison.
She commands the screen as Colette making it easy to see why so many of the figures fall in love with her, and we watch her transform physically (in dress [or technically suits] and hairstyle) and emotionally here as she comes to terms with herself and what she wants and is capable of.
It’s a powerful and empowering performance as we watch her change and grow bolder. But best of all Knightley has fun with it. She laughs and dances and makes love to men and women with a joy and energy that’s mesmerizing.
It’s worth noting though that despite how progressive and fairly modern this film is in regards to gender and sexuality, it still fails in one major area that at this point in time is pretty unforgivable.
One of Knightley’s primary love interests Missy is presented as trans, but they’re portrayed by a cis actress. While it’s great to see that inclusion and representation for this character (especially in this time period), it’s extremely frustrating that the role was cast this way. Particularly because director Wash Westmoreland (“Still Alice“, “Gay Republicans (TV)”) said the following to Variety that this film was about reclaiming the relevance and agency of history’s queer people, saying “this is their story.”
Well frankly if that’s the case than he should have thought to hire a nonbinary or trans actor instead in this role. I appreciate that his intention is to help reveal the forgotten/hidden history of LGBT people, however he’s contributing to their erasure in the present with this casting choice.
Overall though this is an enjoyable, scrumptious biopic with a feminist bent that’s worth seeking out. It seems that any film featuring a complex and well written female character these days is labelled a response to the #MeToo era.
I think this is lazy criticism and in reality trivialises and misrepresents a very important movement, and I would not make that comment there. However, I will say this certainly feels like an excellent time for this movie to be released.
There’s little I can think of right now that’s more satisfying than watching a woman (and a queer one at that) reject the control and stifling influence of an undeserving man, seeking out the love she deserves on her terms, both in her career and romantic life. Especially when said woman is played by Keira Knightley.
11th January 2019
THE QUICK SELL
Colette is pushed by her husband to write novels under his name. Upon their success, she fights to make her talents known, challenging gender norms.