Keira Knightley brings spark to a rule-breaking literary icon in the snappy historical drama Colette

By Jim Slotek

Rating: B+

In the wrong hands, a historical drama about a beloved literary figure and early LGBT icon could be like going to church. There was one at TIFF about Virgina Woolf (review to come if it’s ever released) that was so earnest as to be glacial.

And then there’s Colette starring Keira Knightley and Dominic West, a believe-it-or-not fun movie about Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette. Colette is best known to us now as the author of the novella Gigi (of movie and musical fame), and in her youth, was the creator of the Claudine stories, saucy semi-autobiographical books about a French-farmgirl-turned-Belle-Epoque-socialite.

 Denise Gough plays Missy, the longtime love interest of Colette (Keira Knightley)

Denise Gough plays Missy, the longtime love interest of Colette (Keira Knightley)

The twist: convinced by her con-artist husband Henry Gauthier-Villars (a.k.a. Willy) that a woman writer wouldn’t be taken seriously, Colette allows the Claudine books to be released under his name. Colette would one day be emancipated (both sexually and maritally). But in the meantime, Willy and Colette were the self-promoting toast of Paris (Dominic West, who plays Willy, has called them, “the Kim and Kanye of their day”).

Read our interview with Keira Knightley and Dominic West

It’s a fun life to follow, despite the inherent exploitation in the relationship (and the distraction of French people with English accents). Director/co-writer Wash Westmoreland (Still Alice) keeps to a jaunty pace, from the moment young Colette entertains her swain demurely over dinner at her parents’ farmhouse, and then arranges to meet him for a roll in the hay after he “leaves.”

Kind of A Star Is Born without the pathos, Willy brings his rough gem to Paris as his new wife, where she must endure initial snobbery. But the awakening of her talent leads to her becoming as big a celebrity as him. Some suspected Claudine’s true provenance at the time, others simply assumed Colette was Willy’s muse. Either way, they were a celebrity package deal.

Knightley as naif is never entirely convincing. Even on the farm, there is a look in her eye that suggests gears are turning. But in the milieu of Paris, her performance clicks into gear. In the libertine atmosphere, Colette answers her husband’s infidelity with some of her own – including an affair with an American heiress (Eleanor Tomlinson) who has eyes for both Colette and Willy, and a genuinely tender and lasting relationship with Mathilde de Morny, Marquise de Belief a.ka. Missy (Denise Gough) who identified as a man generations before the term even existed.

Colette is ultimately a feminist tale, but never one that wallows in self-pity or seriousness. It is also carried along lightly by a script with a streak of wit (when Willy tries to wrap his head around Colette’s affairs with women, he asks, puzzled, “But isn’t there something missing?”).

West’s Willy is a pure cad who oozes the kind of charisma that makes the persona work. We enjoy watching him “work” people, but we don’t feel overly sorry when his free ride ultimately slips through his fingers. 

And Knightley’s Colette has the arc of a fighter, at one point defiantly mounting a gender-bending stage play with Missy that history records caused a near-riot at the Folies Bergère. Le Belle Epoque doesn’t seem so long ago in this movie. And Colette, at least as portrayed here, has a spirit that endures.

Colette. Directed and co-written by Wash Westmoreland. Starring Keira Knightley, Dominic West and Denise Gough. Opening in Toronto, Friday, Sept. 28. In other Canadian cities Friday, Oct. 12.