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Colette Provides an Empowering and Timely Message, But Lacks Support for its Title Character

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COURTESY OF BLEECKER STREET MEDIA
  • Courtesy of Bleecker Street Media

While mainstream audiences might associate two-time Academy Award nominee Keira Knightley (The Imitation Game) with her role in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, just as many moviegoers probably consider her more recognizable from the handful of costume dramas she’s starred in during her career.

From the emotionally resonant 2005 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice to the under-appreciated uniqueness of 2012’s Anna Karenina, Knightley is synonymous with characters who don modest muslin gowns and colorful Victorian-era silk dresses. It’s unfortunate, then, that her latest foray into the late 19th century isn’t as effective as her prior period pieces.

In Colette, Knightley stars as Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, one of the most important voices in women’s literature ever to come out of France (notable works include Chéri and Gigi). The film introduces audiences to Colette as a young country girl who is whisked away to Paris by Willy (Dominic West), a charming and well-liked writer and struggling publishing house owner.

Living above their means in Paris, Willy, who manages a team of ghostwriters who churn out literature to sell to Belle Époque socialites, persuades Colette to write a coming-of-age novel about her teenage years and allow him to publish it under his name. When the book, Claudine at School, becomes a hit, Willy demands she continue writing (there are four novels in the Claudine series). This all occurs while her relationship with Willy deteriorates because of his refusal to credit her as the real author and the problems caused by their open marriage — which Colette uses as inspiration for her writing.

Directed and co-written by Wash Westmoreland (Still Alice), Colette is hitting theaters during a moment in our cultural history when many women, much like the film’s title character, are standing up for themselves against the oppression of toxic men. It’s a timely biopic on female empowerment — one that rests solely on the shoulders of Knightley and her insightful depiction of strength and desire for independence.

Where the film falters, however, is in Westmoreland’s script, which should have offered more narrative support from its secondary characters. Instead, Colette remains a loner as she confronts the unsustainable life she’s built with Willy and the romance she later establishes with Missy (Denise Gough), an androgynous partner who understands the frustration Colette feels from having to stay silent and unseen for so long — like a ghost floating around in literary limbo. Although it’s a central message, Westmoreland gets a bit heavy-handed with his metaphors. In one scene, Colette is transfixed on a male mime singing soprano before the camera pulls back to reveal that he is lip-syncing a song actually being sung by a woman standing behind him. If we didn’t know any better, we might think Colette was trying to say something.