DRAMA; 1hr 51min
STARRING: Keira Knightley, Dominic West
Lady writer: Knightley
French author Gabrielle-Sidonie Colette (Knightley) wrote like a dream with a delicacy of feeling and a specific insight that continues to shine. But when director Wash Westmoreland’s slice-of-life opens in 1893, Gabrielle is a country girl new to Paris, and the disillusioned, younger wife of silver-tongued writer and cheater Henry Gauthier-Villars (West) who goes, appropriately, by the name of Willy.
Women of the time were hardly models of liberation, and in any case, Willy is a consummate limelight-hogger. Undaunted, the corseted and suppressed Gabrielle is fiercely forward-thinking. “I want to be a part of things,” she stubbornly declares. She gets her wish, in a way, when cash-strapped Willy puts her to work as one of his ghost writers and her semi-autobiographical Claudine novels, published under his name, are a massive hit.
Willy, of course, seizes the glory with a slyboots complacency that would infuriate a saint. (Women authors don’t sell, he assures his underwhelmed wife.) Colette, as she now calls herself, takes this in her stride with an enviable sangfroid that crumbles in tandem with her failing marriage and awakening sexuality. As marital cracks deepen to fissures and Colette rediscovers herself as a lover of women and a provocative showgirl, the ownership of her words becomes a crucial step away from her manipulative husband.
A feminist before the word was invented, Colette’s personal and professional liberation was more remarkable for the barricades it stormed. Her brave awakening has been a long-standing passion project for Westmoreland (Still Alice), who understands a rebel’s restless soul. So, too, does an attuned and tantalising Knightley. Her Colette’s crispness cloaks a well of emotion and a will that carries her from merely being a part of things to making the seemingly impossible happen.