Review: Knightley smashes gender barriers as 'Colette'

Keira Knightley plays the 'Claudine' author and is framed as a hero for today

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic
Dominic West and Keira Knightley in "Colette."

Keira Knightley gives a vivacious performance in "Colette," the spirited story of the celebrated French author who battled gender norms and broke down walls for women in the early 1900s.

Knightley plays Colette, born Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette in the French countryside in the 1870s. Her marriage to the older Henry Gauthier-Villars (Dominic West) brought her to Paris, where she wrote the hugely popular series of "Claudine" novels, published under Henry's nom-de-plume, Willy. 

Colette and Henry's marriage had its, well, issues; "this is what men do!" Henry pleads, after Colette finds him cheating. 

Eventually they settle into a sort of fluent marriage; outside relationships are okay, lying isn't. But Henry can't even keep that much straight, and when he's not sneaking around, he's locking Colette in a room and ordering her to produce more content. 

But Colette is no feeble victim. She grows increasingly strong-willed over the course of the movie, which follows her from 1892 to 1905, and Knightley does a fine job of embodying her growth in her confident, assured performance. 

Director Wash Westmoreland ("Still Alice") keeps the material from becoming melodramatic or overwrought, although he often relies on the overactive score to ratchet up the dramatic tension from which he tends to shy away.

He instead focuses on framing Colette as a woman decades ahead of her time; she was woke before woke existed, and had a long relationship with the transgender Mathilde de Morny (Denise Gough). 

That a lot of rocks remain unturned — she would go on to be successful for decades after the story wraps — is a testament to the richness of Colette's life, and another reason her story begged to be told.




Rated R for some sexuality/nudity

Running time: 111 minutes