There are worse problems in the world, but I fear Keira Knightley has been typecast. Consider, for a minute, the sheer amount of British period dramas she’s appeared in (and yeah, “Pirates of the Caribbean” counts). There’s her Joe Wright trilogy, with “Pride & Prejudice,” “Atonement” and “Anna Karenina.” There’s the David Cronenberg film “A Dangerous Method.” And her most recent Oscar nomination came for “The Imitation Game.” This is no insult to Knightley, who reliably fills her characters with a vitality that brings relevance to characters otherwise faded from memory.
“Colette” marks Knightley’s return to the genre and, once again, she brings her trademark vigor to the role. Knightley portrays the famous French writer of the title (real name Gabrielle Colette) through a decade and change as she develops her writing with the publication of the “Claudine” series of somewhat-autobiographical novels. Colette, a poor country girl, marries the wealthier Henry Gauthier-Villars (Dominic West, “The Square”), who “writes” novels under the pseudonym Willy, relying on his employees to do the grunt work while Willy markets the novels. After frustrating his laborers, he turns to Colette, oftentimes locking her in a room to force her to write. As it turns out, Colette, whose utterances themselves have something of a beguiling ring, is quite a talented writer, and “Claudine at School” is a hit.
The film’s first half, depicting the couple’s ascent, is rather dull, if not perfectly delightful. You’ll like this section if you enjoy the work of Tom Hooper or Joe Wright, who consistently churn out indelible British period dramas, with a few jokes sprinkled in to satisfy a “wholesome” movie experience. But otherwise, patience may be required for those desiring something less risk-averse, since what may have remained a stodgy and stuffy chamber piece transforms into full-on erotic drama by the second half, as Colette explores her attraction to women. Once Colette and Willy find success, and the luxuries of upper class life are available to them, the story opens up to a sometimes bold character exploration, especially of Colette. One scene, in which she flirts with an American woman through hair play, sparkles with sensual tension. A montage depicting a number of sexual encounters including both Colette and West is strangely charming.
Unfortunately, West’s character remains somewhat enigmatic. The screenplay sets up a series of contradicting behaviors, abusing his wife and professing his love as if it were the most obvious fact in the world to himself, her and us, and West doesn’t do much to elucidate his thoughts. And while the screenplay is plagued by lifeless and expository dialogue and relies much too heavily on the tiresome tropes of the genre — Knightley gets her Oscar nomination clip with one particularly powerful monologue, a feat of acting but embalmed by stale writing — the film is bubbly and pleasant enough to enjoy two hours with.
There’s a line in the film “Frances Ha” in which the titular Frances, finally finding an opportunity to smoke indoors rather than leaning cautiously out the window, says that she feels “like a bad mother from 1957.” For better or worse, I think we all know what she’s talking about: The archetypal mother, frustrated by domesticity yet without a Betty Friedan book to articulate it, smoking and neglecting her children.
Leave it to Carey Mulligan (“Mudbound”) to breathe glorious life into Frances’s vision. In “Wildlife,” with the exceptionally assured directorial debut of Paul Dano (“Okja”), she’s a mother in 1959, newly moved to Helena, Montana. Jeanette’s husband, Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal, “Stronger”), works at a golf course and plays football with his son, Joe (Ed Oxenbould, “Better Watch Out”), who seems less enthused with the rough sport. After he loses his job, Jerry refuses to take a job that a teenager would do. He tries to reaffirm his masculinity by leaving the family to fight a wildfire raging nearby. Jeanette is devastated and, beginning to consider leaving her husband, starts to clue in Joe to the couple’s marital stresses.
“Wildlife,” adapted from a 1990 Richard Ford novel of the same name, is a horror movie cloaked in coming-of-age and kitchen sink drama. Joe plays witness to the crumbling foundation of his family. Oxenbould, with a demure and somewhat downtrodden expression plastered on his face, is excellent as Joe becomes disillusioned watching his mother’s life unravel. This is Joe’s story, after all, and Dano trains his focus on him — his confusion, his friendship with a classmate and his employment at the local photography studio.
Dano lets his characters live in the scene, often choosing to keep the camera stationary, highlighting the characters’ raw movements and emotions. Oxenbould is a great protagonist, a blank canvas for audience participation, while Mulligan and Bill Camp (“Molly’s Game”), who plays Jeanette’s lover, inhabit their roles with audacity and passion. Gyllenhaal, who disappears for a large segment, seems too young and boyish to play this role, but at certain moments, especially in a late scene in a bar, his intensity matches the others in the cast.
The word or phrase “wild life” appears, by my count, twice in the film: Once around the middle, when Joe asks Jeanette what happens to the wildlife when a fire ravages their habitat, and second when Jerry, upon returning home, castigates his wife for her infidelity by exclaiming, only half sarcastically, what a wild life this is. That change — from one word to two — is crucial, because among the pastoral and eerily quiet landscapes of Montana, neither families nor the environment that surrounds them can stay intact for too long.