Colette Review: A Biopic About Sexual Freedom With One of Keira Knightley’s Best Performances


Keira Knightley is a star whose presence I have often enjoyed onscreen more often than the films she’s in themselves. Perhaps it’s also come forth from my general lack of interest in period pieces, but Colette never stayed within the realms of what I would have expected it to be. On paper, it sounds like it could easily have been any other film that Keira Knightley would have attached her name to, especially given the setting and the subject matter having been based on a real person, but what Wash Westmoreland presents with Colette also carries a more seductive quality that I must also admit I didn’t expect to see right away. It’s seductive in the sense that Keira Knightley’s onscreen presence has always been, especially as she takes on new appearances under the elaborate costume design. Although if I were also to talk about the sort of turn that a film like Colette would have been from the films of hers that I’ve already familiarized myself with for so long, then it would also be worth noting that sort of person whose story she brings to life here.


In this biopic, Keira Knightley stars as author Gabrielle Colette, whose work is often rejected for sharing the perspectives of women in ways that differentiate from societal norms at the time. But she communicated her ideas through being a ghostwriter for her husband Henry Gathier-Villars (Dominic West), who writes under the name “Willy.” First through writing a series of stories about a girl named Claudine under “Willy and Colette,” Colette’s fight to get the recognition for her work that her husband has taken credit for, she also sought to challenge societal gender norms at the time – something that she expressed so beautifully through her own character of Claudine. Though Colette doesn’t exactly do much to change the landscape of biopics of the sort, there’s a stunning resonance that a story of this sort would bear even in today’s world. But among other things I certainly didn’t expect myself to be having as much fun with this as I did, though a part of that may also have something to do with my lack of knowledge on its subject.

Although it plays out like any other biopic, familiar towards what you’d expect – but something I admire about what it is that Wash Westmoreland created here is an incredibly sex positive picture. It’s a film that gleefully expresses itself through Colette’s own sexuality, by placing its viewers inside of that mindset and utilizing that feeling of freedom to tell that story in a way that many can relate. But like any great period piece, Westmoreland immerses you into the time period like any other character from the film in order to best capture the mood and bring Colette a life of its own on the screen. Yet watching how Keira Knightley brings energy to her role of Colette onto the screen is another story being told, because she’s wonderful – obviously – but because of what her performance embraces as she plays Colette. You see a woman whose creativity doesn’t limit itself into her own writing but in creating a sense of personal freedom as a sexually expressive woman.

Yet I’m not entirely sure that I’m on board with the structuring of this film, in part because of the choppy editing style. It’s easy enough to say that the film is at its most wonderful when it’s more dedicated to showing how Colette’s relationships defined the way her writing has changed over time, but then you also have moments that cut to show Colette caught in a fight together with her husband in order to get recognition for what she claims to be her own work. These moments never exactly feel as strong as the moments that focus solely on Colette’s sexual expression and how it ties into her writing because it also feels like too drastic a shift in pace, but also because Dominic West’s role is one that still rings as being so by-the-numbers. It’s moments like this that expose the very bare bones of where Colette doesn’t quite work so well, because they’re also not explored to that same amount of care as those that seem purely about Colette herself. As a matter of fact, the editing style seems to make it feel like it’s a whole other movie separate from another and it finds the storytelling at odds with itself.

But there’s a very energy that Colette carries that I wish to find in more biopics today. It’s a film that doesn’t exactly do much to go beyond what we’ve already come to familiarize ourselves with in terms of the structure and yet in how it tries to embody the very sort of personality that Colette tried to give to her own writing, it’s also raised my interest in her own work. I think that’s the sign of a success right there, but it’s a shame this film seems like it would end up going under the radar for many – because there’s a whole lot about it that I find so admirable as it is. This is a role that I can already feel that Keira Knightley was born to play, because of the very life she brings to her interpretation of Colette just as Wash Westmoreland’s own writing would allow for the very best aspects of this personality to shine on the screen. But overall, I can’t help but admit I’m glad he was able to tell a story like this to reach a new audience – it’s something I know his late partner Richard Glatzer would have been proud to see.

Watch the trailer right here.

All images via Bleecker Street.

Directed by Wash Westmoreland
Screenplay by Richard Glatzer, Rebecca Lenkiewicz, Wash Westmoreland
Produced by Elizabeth Karlsen, Pamela Koffler, Michel Litvak, Christine Vachon
Starring Keira Knightley, Dominic West, Eleanor Tomlinson, Denise Gough, Aiysha Hart
Release Date: September 21, 2018
Running Time: 111 minutes


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