Keira Knightley appears to have just accepted the fact that she’s at her best — and in her best movies — when she travels back in time.
The actress is the reigning queen of the period piece. She simply looks and sounds and feels like someone who lived and loved between 80 to 200 years ago. “Pride and Prejudice,” “Atonement,” “The Imitation Game,” “Anna Karenina,” “The Duchess,” “A Dangerous Method” — films of varying quality, but in each case, Knightley felt right at home, blending perfectly into the texture of these long-gone worlds while still managing to shine on through.
Knightley stars in contemporary-set movies from time to time, and she’s typically quite good in them. But when you see her in a modern setting, you can’t help but wonder: Where’s Keira’s fancy dress? Where’s her tall wig? Why isn’t she reading old books in a meadow?
In the arch new biopic “Colette,” Knightley gets one of her best roles in years as Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, a French country girl who moves to the opulent bohemia of late-19th-century Paris after marrying the successful writer Willy (Dominic West).
(No French accents here. Just Brits speaking English Englishly.)
With creditors on his heels, Willy asks his new wife to pen a book that he can publish under his name. She comes up with a semi-autobiographical novel about an intrepid young woman named Claudine.
The book becomes an overnight bestseller and cultural sensation, leading to popular sequels, launching a new hairstyle fad (“the Claudine”) and spurring Claudine adaptations in theaters and music halls. All of it under Willy’s name.
Colette’s fine with this arrangement. At least at first. But as she grows increasingly bold and confident in her abilities, she begins to want her authorship to be known. Willy isn’t keen on this idea, but Colette is willing to fight.
Through this battle, “Colette” examines the gender roles and social constraints of the day, and yet the film isn’t even interested in Colette’s fight for credit until the last 20 minutes or so. (Spoilers: Colette went on to become one of the most successful and prolific French novelists of the early 20th century.)
“Colette” is considerably more interested in sex. About a half-hour in, “Colette” fully becomes what it really is: a fun and frothy sex comedy with a side of acerbically witty dialogue.
Willy is unfaithful from the start of their marriage. At first, Colette is outraged, but she gradually comes to realize that she, too, has a wandering eye for other women. Before long, Willy and Colette are openly having affairs (sometimes with the same woman!). This leads to scandal, which finds its way into the plots of “Claudine” novels, which leads to more scandal, which leads to great sales, which leads to more sex/scandal/money.
“Colette” is about one woman’s quest to gain freedom in all endeavors — personal, sexual and creative. Her struggle to obtain ownership of her work coincides with her fight to openly love how she wants to love and, more to the point, whom she wants to love.
Director Wash Westmoreland (who co-wrote the script) mounts the film handsomely. Period-piece aficionados will have plenty of fine scenery and costumes to relish in. The film even has a diamond-encrusted tortoise.
But I’m always partial to these kinds of movies (let’s just call them Keira Knightley movies) for the words. Colette, Willy and their coterie have sharp tongues, whether they’re trying to flirt, injure each other or discuss the agonies and ecstasies of the creative process.
Whether “Colette” is your thing can probably be judged from how positively you respond to this exchange between Colette and a fellow writer:
Colette: “Have you always written?”
Writer: “I didn’t really have a choice. It was simply ... there.”
Colette: “Does it make you happy?”
Writer: “God, no. I do it to prevent me from going mad. Sometimes, occasionally, it will transport me.”