I know many with an intense draw to lavish, regal period dramas. I’m not one of them. But, if you’re in the same boat as me, I implore you; don’t sleep on Colette. Keira Knightley is downright radiant, the movie is brimming with energy and it also boasts a remarkable and timely true story that I, for one, am very glad to have experienced just the way director Wash Westmoreland crafted it.
Knightley leads as famed French novelist Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette. Her journey from the Burgundy countryside to becoming an extremely popular author in Paris is a wild one and that quality affords Westmoreland many opportunities to break the mold of the traditional period piece, and even coming-of-age stories for that matter.
Colette plays like a true epic with Knightley acing every single stage of it, beginning with her younger years in the country when she first fell for the well-known author and publisher, Willy (Dominic West), to the early years of their marriage and adapting to city living, to the penning of the Claudine books and then ultimately, hitting the point when she comes to the conclusion that she deserves better. It’s a powerful story and an especially relevant one given the current discussions regarding equality at the workplace. It’s a true story that would have been a worthy addition to that conversation no matter what, but what helps Colette make an especially lasting impression is how the script takes its time chronicling not just Colette’s journey, but just enough of Willy’s as well.
Knightley and West are oozing with chemistry and it doesn’t take long to get completely swept up in what seems to be a very honest romance. She’s eager to be there for him and support his career, and he does make a concerted effort to support Colette and help her acclimate to the ritzy city scene. The heart and adoration there is palpable, so when work creeps into the equation, it’s easy to understand how Colette wound up in the complicated position of penning work under Willy’s name. Sure Willy gambles away a good deal of money and once even resorts to locking Colette in a room to force her to finish a book, but they’re a team of sorts – right? Knightly’s performance is so captivating and you’re so firmly in her shoes that by this point of the story, it’s easy to understand why significant red flags could be brushed aside.
As previously mentioned, Willy does some pretty terrible things but rather than paint him as a cookie cutter villain, writers Westmorland, Richard Glatzer and Rebecca Lenkiewicz give him so much complexity and depth that you can feel a disconnect, almost as if there’s something physically stopping him from understanding why he can’t keep getting away with this nonsense. It isn’t a matter of good triumphing over evil, but rather reassessing the one you once loved and coming to the conclusion that it’s hopeless.
It may sound like a weighty takeaway there, but Colette is still shockingly light on its feet. Knightley is a natural in the role and as Colette connects more and more to her self-worth and what she loves, Knightley gets a lot of room to play and seizes that opportunity big time. Much of the movie has an energetic and playful vibe, and it’s also loaded with whip-smart, sassy banter between Knightley and West. The lavish production design significantly contributes to how quickly you’re transported into the time period. Willy’s office in particular is a highly detailed location that feels truly used and lived in. The costume design is also incredibly striking and beautifully enhances Colette’s transformation throughout the film.
The movie is an undeniable winner. There are a small handful of moments when a little more access to Colette’s decision making process would have been welcomed and the same goes for additional screen time for Denise Gough as Missy (Mathilde de Morny), one of the first women to publicly identify as being a man. Gough stands out in the role from the moment she first appears on screen and for a movie that really takes its time fleshing out each and every stage of Colette’s journey, it’s unfortunate that this particular portion feels a bit rushed. But that only makes a minimal dent in an experience that’s a wildly entertaining romp with heart that features Keira Knightley relishing in every ounce of Colette’s passion, sauciness and ultimately, her confidence.
Colette opens September 21st.
For more of our reviews from the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival, click on the links below: