Keira Knightley (“The Imitation Game”) and European period dramas go hand in hand. Whether she takes on the role of Elizabeth Bennett or Anna Karenina, Knightley delivers wittiness and sells the historical throwback with ease. She could be a time traveler, an actress actually born in the 1800s and 1900s, sent to the future to give audiences a taste of life before computers and social media and clubbing.
Set at the turn of the 20th century, “Colette” follows Gabrielle Colette, the true author of the popular French Claudine novels, and her husband, Henry Gauthier-Villars, pen name Willy (Dominic West, “The Square”). Willy has relied on ghost writers for his success, approaching literature as a marketing challenge rather than an artistic pursuit. When bills pile up and he can no longer afford the men who wrote his earlier works, he turns to his wife, Colette. Colette draws from her memories and deepest thoughts to create what Willy initially rejects: the most popular book in France, particularly among women readers. However, since Willy publishes the book and its sequels under his own name, Colette receives none of the acclaim or credit.
The great American (or British) novel has always been a male-dominated pursuit. The lists of classic “greats” usually showcase white men like Ernest Hemingway, Tom Wolfe and Jonathan Franzen. “Colette” dives into the psyche of this obsession, showing Willy’s views of what makes a book enjoyable — plot, sex, action — versus Colette, who focuses instead on literary elements. Willy wants a story about school girls for the fantasy-fulfillment factor, while Colette wishes to connect with her readers and convey her personal truths.
Along the way, Colette discovers a taboo truth about herself: She does not solely love men. As Willy openly pursues other women, so does Colette. Their marriage reaches a surprisingly progressive state where the two spouses carry out affairs and inform one another. However, as Colette soon realizes, she is still an oppressed woman. Willy only allows her to take on female, not male, lovers, and does so in the hope of sparking a higher rate of production for the Claudine novels. “Colette” explores the hidden LGBTQ+ community in the early 1900s with simultaneously refreshing casualness and an alarming lack of politics. Although Colette and her trans lover are harassed at a show, the film does not address how the society as a whole treated or was aware of non-heterosexual relationships.
“Colette” suffers from trying to cover a large period of time, but does justice to the woman who was almost written out of history. Knightley carries the weight of the film, appearing in nearly every scene and making a lasting impression in one particular uncut monologue. She embodies the role with thoughtfulness and a quiet rage. Knightley and the real life Colette remind the world why women should not be ignored.