2018-10-11 / Around Town

Keira Knightley Shines as ‘Colette’

FILM REVIEW
By Loren King


Keira Knightley, Wash Westmoreland and Eleanor Tomlinson in “Colette,” now at the Jane Pickens theatre. Keira Knightley, Wash Westmoreland and Eleanor Tomlinson in “Colette,” now at the Jane Pickens theatre. This handsome, engaging period drama could be a Masterpiece production, but it’s gorgeous on the big screen, which is where it should be seen.

“Colette,” which stars Keira Knightley, portrays the early life of famed French writer Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette. It’s both historically accurate and surprisingly in tune with this precise cultural moment as we see a 19th century woman taking great risks both as a creative artist and in claiming her own agency.

Knightley is terrific as Colette, maturing from a free-spirited girl in the provinces to a gorgeously dressed, party-going Parisian wife to a celebrated author.

The story begins in the modest village of Saint-Sauveur-en-Puisaye, with Colette’s parents (Fiona Shaw and Robert Pugh) pleased that their daughter has caught the eye of the much older Henry Gauthier-Viallars (Dominic West), known as “Willy,” his nom-deplume. But as “Gaby” finds out after she marries him, Willy actually does very little writing. Instead, he pays (or avoids paying) talented writers to do it for him, publishing their work as his own.


Loren King is an arts and entertainment writer whose work appears regularly in The Boston Globe and other publications. Loren King is an arts and entertainment writer whose work appears regularly in The Boston Globe and other publications. The free-spending Willy forces his wife to write in order to make money. Reluctantly, she pens the autobiographical tale of a bright and sensual teen girl, “Claudine,” which her husband initially rejects as “too feminine.” But once it is published, it becomes a literary sensation, bringing Willy, the fake author, the fame and fortune he craves. He pushes his wife, now calling herself simply Colette, to write three “Claudine” sequels, which she does with growing confidence in her own talent.

West manages to bring charm to the controlling, libertine Willy, despite the fact that he steals Colette’s work, telling her that women writers don’t sell and she should be happy they’re living so well. He also cheats on her and encourages her own sexual exploration: the two share the same lover, a rich American from the South named Georgie (Eleanor Tomlinson), which ends in a power struggle for one of Colette’s most personal novels.

But it’s not until Colette begins to demand that she write under her own name that the film gains urgency and relevance. Wanting to make her own artistic mark, Colette begins performing in Paris music halls, sharing the stage as well as the bed of the trouser-wearing aristocrat Missy (Denise Gough). During an avant-garde stage production, Colette and Missy kiss onstage, triggering a near-riot that forces the show to close and results in scandal, though they continue their relationship with Colette breaking from Willy and signing her own name to her books.

Knightley and West generate spark and bring nuance to Colette and Willy’s relationship, once you get used to hearing crisp British accents coming from the lips of famous French characters. We see Colette putting fountain pen to page and writing in lovely cursive French, but “Colette” grapples with the same problem all movies about writers face, which is how to wring drama from furious scribbling or a pained stare at a blank page. Knightley is radiant and convincing as Colette, whether struggling to pen her prose or strutting in a man’s suit with her stylishly bobbed hair.

“Colette” is directed by Wash Westmoreland (“Still Alice”), who worked for many years with his late husband and collaborator Richard Glatzer (he died in 2015) to bring this film to the screen.

We learn more about Colette as the credits roll, and it makes one wish the film gave us more of her rich and eventful life, which ended in 1954 when she was 81. There would be some 30 novels, other lovers and husbands, and international acclaim for her literary accomplishments.

“Colette” is an engaging look at the artist’s early years, but it can’t begin to tell the whole story of such a complex visionary and a woman way ahead of her time.

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