Colette review: Keira Knightley is insightful and charming as the radical and pioneering Colette, in this new biopic that takes a look at the early years of the French author’s exciting life.

BFI London Film Festival

Colette is a simple and strong-minded country girl, plucked out of her family home and relocated to bourgeoisie Paris when she marries famous literary entrepreneur Willy. The intelligentsia salons of the Belle Epoque, though at first foreign and pretentious to her, quickly grow on the young Colette as she adapts to her new lifestyle. In an attempt to help with her husband’s debts, Colette ghostwrites her first novel for him, based loosely on her adolescence, producing a bestseller and igniting a cultural stir.

As the popularity of the book grows, so does Colette’s need to push the boundaries of societal conventions and gender norms. From lesbian lovers to outspoken manners and an attempt to make her talents known, we see the development of the Colette that cemented herself in French cultural and literary history.

Director and writer Wash Westmoreland (Still Alice, The Last of Robin Hood) moves the story at a fast pace, but attentively pauses and ponders at important moments in Colette’s life, giving the film an exhilarating yet insightful tone. Tackling issues of sex, female empowerment, and marital restraints, the biopic takes a light-hearted and witty yet thoughtful approach, and through this cleverly portrays Colette as more than just being defined by the actions of her husband and society.

In what may be one of her best roles to date, Knightley (Atonement, Pride & Prejudice) does a superb job at capturing the brazen, intelligent, talented and unconventional woman that revolutionised literature, gender roles, and sexual expression. Apt in sensing Colette’s shifting moods and growing discomfort in her own marriage, Knightley leads the transformation of shy country girl to powerful force on the Parisian bourgeoisie scene with a truly heartfelt and genuine performance.

The supporting cast only add to the complexity of Colette’s character, with brilliant performances by Dominic West (The Affair, The Wire) as the selfish and hypocritical husband Willy, Denise Gough (Robin Hood, Jimmy’s Hall) as the cross-dressing lover Missy and Eleanor Tomlinson (Poldark, Jack the Giant Slayer) as rich heiress Georgie Raoul-Duval, who becomes a lover of both Colette and Willy simultaneously.

They say the hand that holds the pen writes history. Colette has made her mark in history, and Westmoreland and Knightley have created a film that honours this hand in the best possible way.

Colette review by Tina Baraga, October 2018.

Colette is released in UK cinemas on 25 January 2019.