With a CV already boasting costume dramas including Anna Karenina, Pride And Prejudice, The Duchess and Atonement, not to mention the blockbusting Pirates Of The Caribbean series, it was apparently a challenge to persuade Keira Knightley back into a corset. But then, biopic Colette is very far from other costume dramas – aside from looking absolutely gorgeous.
It opens in the French countryside, where Sidonie-Gabrielle “Gaby” Colette (Knightley) is still a free-spirited teenager frolicking around in the woods to the tut-tutting of her mama (Fiona Shaw). It’s quickly clear that posh-but-poor Gaby is not as innocent as her long, schoolgirlish plaits make her appear. Swept off her feet by a successful older writer, the self-styled “literary entrepreneur” known as Willy (Dominic West), Gaby initially flounders in the fashionable salons of Belle Époque Paris. She considers them too pretentious, while the salonistas sniff that she’s a silly little girl to think she could tame the notorious Willy. However, with the bailiffs knocking at their door, and Willy unable to pay the workers who ghostwrite his creations, Gaby turns her hand to writing. In almost one sitting, she pens a semi-autobiographical novel about a naughty country schoolgirl she calls Claudine. Willy puts his name to the book and it becomes a publishing sensation.
Given the ongoing Time’s Up zeitgeist, it could not be a more timely release. It’s an inspiring tale of one woman’s struggle and trailblazing triumph
Their audacious experiences, including affairs with a rich, American socialite (Poldark’s Eleanor Tomlinson), feed into Claudine’s plots. Claudine becomes such a craze that she spawns a cosmetics and clothing range. However, Colette grows frustrated with Willy’s domineering ways as well as his infidelities. “You have to understand: this is what men do,” he tells her. But Colette is no longer content to lie down and take such behaviour.
Empowered by Claudine’s success, and eager to explore a life beyond the strictures of monogamy and gender, she dares to cross social and sexual boundaries to realise her full potential – both as an artist and as a woman.
Given the ongoing Time’s Up zeitgeist, Colette could not be a more timely release. It’s an inspiring tale of one woman’s struggle and trailblazing triumph. Colette not only wrote 80 books, she was also nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature. She also explored her sexuality with a revolutionary honesty and freedom.
Knightley is mesmerising in undoubtedly her finest role to date. Playful, vulnerable, curious, fierce, she is clearly fascinated by Colette’s complexities and, in turn, fascinates the audience. Dominic West is her perfect foil, the incorrigible bon viveur, far too charming and human to be simply the boorish villain of the piece. Their chemistry fizzes, as do their exchanges.
As “representation” becomes a buzzword, along with “diversity”, more and more previously hidden histories like Colette’s are hitting the big screen, and overlooked voices are starting to be heard. Just as Colette’s Claudine novels sparked a trend, Colette the movie may well too. This is a film that thrillingly refreshes our notion of what a period drama can be.