Such a career Keira Knightley has put together over these last two decades, from “Bend It Like Beckham” to “Love Actually” to “Domino” to “Pride & Prejudice” to “The Imitation Game” and of course all those “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies, consistently making films better and not-so-good films a little more tolerable.
With the feminist-forward period piece “Colette,” Knightley takes on one of the richest and most complex and fascinating characters she’s ever played — and delivers one of her most memorable performances.
Knightley’s Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette grows from mischievous teenager to subservient wife to equal partner in her husband’s career to independent voice to bold, groundbreaking, controversial icon. We believe every inch of the transformation, and every second of Knightley’s performance.
Director Wash Westmoreland does a beautiful job of dropping us into the rural French countryside as well as the Paris of the late 19th and early 20th century.
We meet Colette — then known as Gaby — as a lively teenager with impossibly long braids who lives with her parents in a modest home in the country. A handsome, charming, older man named Willy (Dominic West) comes a-courting, presenting Colette with a gift and, in the course of conversation with her parents, revealing himself to be a pompous, narcissistic blowhard in love with the sound of his own voice.
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Nevertheless, Colette is intoxicated by the libertine Willy’s bigger-than-life persona and his grand declarations of eternal love. So the seemingly simple country girl marries the sophisticated, celebrated bon vivant author and moves to Paris with him, much to the shock of Willy’s snobbish friends in the arts community who thought the city’s most eligible bachelor would never settle down — especially not with this uneducated peasant.
Turns out Willy doesn’t actually pen the clever works attached to his name; he pays ghostwriters who (among others) are constantly at his door, demanding restitution. Willy’s free-spending lifestyle has left him deep in debt, with his writers refusing to churn out any new copy in his name. In desperation, he turns to his wife and begs her to turn her diaries into a semi-autobiographical novel.
The result is the first of four provocative, stimulating and wildly successful “Claudine” books, all inspired by Colette’s experiences — and all written by Willy, as far as the world knew.
Willy publicly acknowledges Claudine is based on Colette, who becomes a minor celebrity in her own right as his “muse.” In the meantime, Willy bullies and berates and betrays Colette — who begins to explore her own path, including relationships with women.
The more Colette asserts herself, the more monstrous and controlling Willy becomes. When she suggests sharing a byline with him, Willy says it will kill the golden goose because after all, everyone knows women writers don’t sell.
Dominic West is perfectly cast as a self-pitying author who takes full credit for his triumphs but always looks for excuses and scapegoats when things go wrong. (Shades of West’s role on the Showtime series “The Affair.”) At times Willy, with his elaborate facial hair and his bull-bleep stories and his creepy machinations and his flashy cowardice, is an almost cartoonishly loathsome foil, but when Knightley’s Colette finally lashes into Willy with the kind of speech they play in nomination clips, it’s an undeniably satisfying moment.
The costumes and sets and attention to detail in “Colette”—all first-rate. Lush and vibrant and badass, this is a film with a modern sensibility, but an authentic representation of time and place.
As Colette takes control of her personal life as well as her career — finally ridding herself of the duplicitous Willy, telling the world she was the real author of the Claudine stories, becoming a stage performer, going public with her longtime affair with the love of her life, Missy (Denise Gough) — it’s a little bit surprising, and a little bit disappointing, how conventional the film becomes. “Colette” settles into the comfortable rhythms of a standard biopic, complete with the obligatory end-credits sequence featuring photos of the real-life figures depicted in the story, accompanied by Wikipedia-style paragraphs telling us how everything played out.
But that epilogue only begins to tell the story of Colette’s life after the events depicted in this film. Unlike so many of those “Pirates” movies, here’s a movie with Keira Knightley that really does merit the sequel treatment.
Bleecker Street Media presents a film directed by Wash Westmoreland and written by Westmoreland, Richard Glatzer and Rebecca Lenkiewicz. Rated R (for some sexuality/nudity). Running time: 112 minutes. Opens Friday at local theaters.