Keira Knightley is Ahead of Her Times as ‘Colette’

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CHICAGO – The maturation of Keira Knightley… from ‘Bend it Like Beckham” to “Pride and Prejudice” to the current “Colette,” has had the actor delivering an evolving depth and purpose to her roles. The latest is a fantastic overview of an ahead-of-her-time French novelist, as the rest of society tried to catch up.

“Colette” refers to Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, a writer, mime, actor and journalist, plus wife to Henri Gautier-Villars (AKA “Willy”) in late 19th/early 20th Century Paris. She found her talent for writing through her husband, a raconteur in the City of Lights who put his name on Colette’s early novels, even as they became best sellers. The film – directed by Wash Westmoreland (“Still Alice”) – is an overview of this all, including Colette’s breakaway from his tutelage. Keira Knightly and Dominic West are electric as the husband-and-wife duo, and each adds a spice to the story that moves it forward that much more. Colette was a fascinating real-life figure, and gets a well deserved interpretation by the intuitive Ms. Knightley. It’s also a very entertaining film, without the dreariness that sometimes accompanies period settings.

Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (Keira Knightley) is a country girl, who is being wooed by an older city gentleman known by his pen name Willy (Dominic West) in Paris. When she capitulates and moves to the big town, she is caught up in her husband’s business of producing written material for publications, in a sort of factory set-up. As their bills mount, and Willy’s infidelities become apparent, the young country bride is let down.

Through a Glass, Enlightened: Keira Knightley as ‘Colette’
Photo credit: Bleecker Street Media

With their backs to the wall, Colette (as she has now named herself) writes a series of “Claudine” novels, and Willy attaches his name to them. They become the toast of Pareé, as the books are runaway best sellers. Willy gets addicted to the fame, and Colette becomes more bold in her choice of lovers, including American Georgie (Eleanor Tomlinson) and vague Missy (Denise Gough). Colette became more of herself, as she continued to discover.

Morality and women has always (and to this day) been a tricky dodge, and it is interesting to experience how the saucy “Claudine” novels changed attitudes through the pen of Colette (she also wrote “Gigi” later, which became the basis for the musical). She basically lived her adventures, and converted them to art and literature. Keira Knightley does the Colette dance from country girl to city woman in apparent transition, especially as the multi-purpose artist breaks away from her marriage bonds.

Dominic West as Willy matches Knightley as the roguish hubby, who is both narcissistic and clueless. He loves his discovery, but wants to possess her without strings attached, and West covers all that territory quite magnificently. It would be easy to dismiss old Willy as just another egoistic white male, but beneath the surface – which West masterfully balances – is a jealousy for his wife’s escapades, especially when it is in the realm of her sexuality (natch). It’s an MVP supporting performance.

Willy (Dominic West) and His Bride in ‘Colette’
Photo credit: Bleecker Street Media

The turn of the 19th to the 20th Century is also done rather symbolically through the couple, as horse-drawn carriages give way to bicycles and cars, and the strange modern conveniences of electric lights and telephones infiltrate the later scenes. Colette herself is challenging conventions through her fluid sexual orientation, and the scenes with Georgie and Missy (a baroness who became a baron) portends a freer world for everyone going forward, which became a reflection in Colette’s fiction. It’s both a biography and a social history lesson.

“Are you a fool without a mind or are you really just too blind to realize”? The stage musical team of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe created that line in their version of Colette’s “Gigi,” and in many ways it describes society as a whole, waiting for the artist that will make them see the light. Colette was one of those beacons.

“Colette” has a nationwide release on September 28th. See local listings for theaters and show times. Featuring Keira Knightley, Dominic West, Eleanor Tomlinson, Fiona Shaw and Denise Gough. Screenplay by Wash Westmoreland, Richard Glatzer and Rebecca Lenkiewicz. Directed by Wash Westmoreland. Rated “R” senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

Editor and Film Writer

© 2018 Patrick McDonald,

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