Keira Knightley delivers some of her best work in this elegant film about the famous French writer. Rating: 3 stars out of 4.
Wash Westmoreland’s elegant “Colette” unfolds in a series of softly lit scenes, in which an initially hesitant writer finds her voice. Its heroine is Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (Keira Knightley), a young woman from rural France who moves to Paris with her caddish new husband (Dominic West) in 1893. He, a prolific and popular writer known as Willy, quickly encouraged her to write novels to be published under his name. Her first, the coming-of-age tale “Claudine à l’école” (“Claudine at School”) became a sensation, leading to three more novels and a successful line of Claudine-themed merchandise. The signature Claudine outfit — a schoolgirl-ish black dress with white collar — was spotted on women all over Paris.
Colette — who used only her surname when she began writing under her own name — eventually went on to become one of the most significant woman writers in French literature, with later works including “Cheri” and “Gigi” (which became a Lerner & Loewe musical and Oscar-winning film). But this film, enticingly, just covers the first act of the drama that was Colette’s life — the unhappy marriage, the realization that she was attracted to women as well as men, the early career in music-hall theater, the gradual confidence in her ability to put words on a page.
Westmoreland and his late husband, Richard Glatzer (who co-wrote the “Colette” screenplay before his death in 2015; the film, movingly, is dedicated “For Richard”), previously directed another woman-centered film: “Still Alice,” a showcase for an Oscar-winning performance by Julianne Moore. Here, the focus is on Knightley, who delivers some of her best work. It’s sometimes easy for Knightley, who’s made perhaps a few too many period films, to get lost in the costumes (for the record, they’re a Belle Époque dream, from costume designer Andrea Flesch) and prettiness of a film like this. But here she tosses aside her signature pert coolness, letting us see the flash of fire in Colette’s eyes. By the film’s end, alone on a stage gazing out at the future, she seems utterly, blazingly alive.
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★★★ “Colette,” with Keira Knightley, Dominic West, Denise Gough, Fiona Shaw, Robert Pugh, Eleanor Tomlinson. Directed by Wash Westmoreland, from a screenplay by Westmoreland, Richard Glatzer and Rebecca Lenkiewicz. 112 minutes. Rated R for some sexuality/nudity. Pacific Place, Lincoln Square.