Keira Knightly’s new film has her as Sidonie Gabrilelle Colette, a Parisien author ghost writing racy novels , indulging in frequent bisexual affairs, confronting norms by dressing as a man like her lesbian lover and baring her breasts on stage when she started acting. It’s hardly a surprise then that her husband was commonly known as Willy.
In many ways in a #MeToo and #TimesUp age the lead of Colette is something of a gift as the true life story of a woman repressed and forced to have to ghost write for her husband Willy’s Parisian writing factory before breaking free is still relevant today as it was in 1893. Willy (Dominic West) is something of a literary manipulator acting as an agent for writers but often not paying up although it never stops him from eating and drinking and living the high life on the 19th century Paris social scene before marrying Collette a country girl played by Knightly. As Willy, Dominic West looks like he’s Eddie Izzard wandering in from the Abdul & Victoria set but here his Willy has a wandering eye, frequent affairs and pays for prostitutes until he’s found out by Collette. It’s an awakening for her own sexuality because she too embarks on affairs though with women and in one case Willy is also having an affair with the same woman. As presented here it’s almost a necessity as fuel for the ‘Claudine’ novels that initially are based on Colette’s own early life in the country but made brazenly sexual and becoming a literary sensation. So successful are the novels that Willy pushes her on to write more of them and at one point even locking Colette in a room of their cottage for hours at a time to write the novels that are published but under his name.
Like the best factual stories it would be too unbelievable if it wasn’t true and in many ways both Willy and Colette are far ahead of their time writing racy novels that put Jackie Collins to shame and even being forerunners to merchandising and franchises when the novels are turned into plays and further novels are demanded with even Colette’s bob haircut setting a trend. The problem here was that all of this was a pretence in that Willy had written them and inevitably Colette wants to be recognized as the true writer pushing boundaries further when she eventually runs off with her lesbian lover for the rest of her days.
Though Keira Knightly has been Oscar nominated twice before for roles in Pride & Prejudice and The Imitation Game, both of which are period pieces, there’s a feeling that this late 19th century set film is an attempt at being third time lucky. That said Keira Knightly IS Keira Knightly here and it’s a little cruel of the script to have Willy telling her, ‘You’re no Sarah Bernhardt!’ But credit where it’s due because it’s a brave role for Knightly with the film having some risqué same sex scenes that you don’t expect here to do especially in one scene where she appears to have a Janet Jackson type wardrobe mishap without the moral outrage with which America wound itself up. Colette plays very much like Disobedience meets The Wife both of which have great performances for which Knightly is not quite in the same league as Rachel Weitz and Glen Close.
Here’s the Colette trailer…….