Colette review – Keira Knightley shines in gritty, glamorous biopic

Knightley plays a woman reclaiming her voice in Wash Westmoreland’s beautiful biopic of the French author

Keira Knightley delivers a playfully sly, subtly nuanced performance in director and co-writer Wash Westmoreland’s biographical drama about the titular French writer and performer. Focusing on Colette’s early power struggles with her egotistical husband (Dominic West) and her challenging of traditional gender boundaries, it’s an empowering and entertaining tale of a woman finding her own voice in a society in flux. Beautifully shot by cinematographer Giles Nuttgens, with production designs inspired by the French films of German director Max Ophüls, Colette convincingly conjures a late-19th/early-20th century milieu, to which it adds a thoroughly modern sensibility.

In late-1880s rural Burgundy, vagabond spirit and self-proclaimed “country girl” Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette is courted by literary entrepreneur Henri Gauthier-Villars, marriage to whom opens the door to an exciting new world in Paris. Initially dazzled by his cosmopolitan lifestyle, our heroine soon becomes aware that her husband’s expenditure exceeds both his talent and his fidelity. Fortunes change, however, when her semi-autobiographical tales of a young girl’s journey to maturity (penned at her husband’s instruction, sometimes under lock and key) become a popular sensation.

Denise Gough and Keira Knightley in Colette.
Denise Gough and Keira Knightley in Colette. Photograph: Allstar/Number 9 Films

Published under Gauthier-Villars’ popular nom-de-plume “Willy” (he calls it “a brand”), the ghost-written Claudine à l’École strikes a chord, particularly with young female readers. A series of novels, stage productions, and trend-setting “Claudine” haircuts and accoutrements follow, making Willy and Colette (as she is now known) the toast of the town, while still maintaining the pretence of his authorship. But Colette’s burgeoning relationships with socialite belle Georgie (a theatrically accented Eleanor Tomlinson) and later with the stereotype-defying Missy (Denise Gough, owning the role) encourage her to redefine herself, taking back control of – and credit for – her life and work.

Leeds-born Westmoreland began working on Colette nearly 20 years ago with Richard Glatzer, the longtime partner with whom he made a string of movies including the wonderful coming-of-age gem Quinceañera and the moving drama Still Alice, for which Julianne Moore won a best actress Oscar. After Glatzer died in 2015, Westmoreland continued work on the script with Rebecca Lenkiewicz, the British playwright whose impressive screenwriting credits include Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida and Sebastián Lelio’s Disobedience. Between them, the trio have concocted a screenplay that gives each key character a distinctive register; from the hilariously pompous witticisms of Willy, a role West attacks with tangible relish, to the proud impertinence of Missy, a trailblazer who proves that women can wear the trousers, even when the law says otherwise.

At the centre of it all is Colette, whose charismatic personality we watch grow from wide-eyed wonder to defiant self-determination. “On my bad days, I feel like I can’t find myself,” explained Moore’s Alzheimer’s-afflicted linguistics professor in Still Alice, and that line came back to me as I watched Knightley’s writer trying to find her place in a world in which her own identity has been effectively stolen from her. “No one can take away who you are,” Colette’s mother (Fiona Shaw, excellent) reassures her distraught daughter, but Willy seems to be intent upon doing just that – subsuming her identity under his own overpowering ego.

On some levels, Colette bears thematic comparison to such recent releases as Björn Runge’s The Wife, in which Glenn Close’s character buries her talent for the sake of her celebrated-writer husband’s career, or Haifaa al-Mansour’s Mary Shelley, in which Elle Fanning’s author is overshadowed by her more celebrated poet partner. But here, the focus is on the creation of identity itself, and what it means to be the author of one’s own destiny. Just as Glatzer and Westmoreland’s 2013 film The Last of Robin Hood scratched away at the scabby subject of celebrity, so Colette cleverly unpacks the idea of life as performance, raising pertinent questions about the control of a public image, and its impact on private lives. Particularly intriguing are the scenes in which Colette’s travails become the stuff of pantomime in the form of increasingly provocative theatrical productions, staged with a hint of carnivalesque chaos and evoking the spirit of Fellini.

In her best role since Saul Dibb’s 2008 period drama The Duchess, Knightley brings Colette to life with a performance that blends grit with glamour in seemingly effortless fashion. Typically eye-catching costume design by Andrea Flesch (who did such striking work on Peter Strickland’s The Duke of Burgundy) add to the film’s appeal, as does the astute casting of supporting players Rebecca Root and Jake Graf, and the sharp use of locations in the UK and Hungary, which double handsomely for France.

Colette is in cinemas from Wednesday 9 January

Watch a trailer for Colette.


Mark Kermode, Observer film critic

The GuardianTramp

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