Keira Knightley in 2019 film Colette

Colette is a pacey period drama with thoroughly modern themes

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It has been just over a year since the #MeToo and Times up movements came to the forefront of public consciousness. So it seems only fitting that the story of Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (Keira Knightley), and her right to reclaim her voice and make a place for herself in the world, is resonating with our current experiences of equality, queerness, gender, and identity.

Colette (Keira Knightley), one of France’s most famous authors, had a life extensive and fascinating enough to span any of the Game of Thrones boxsets. This origin story sees her transform from a young obedient wife, to the independent and mononymous Colette.

The broad strokes of her early life are well known to the author’s fans. Colette moves from the provincial countryside of France to join her husband Willy (played with relish by Dominic West) on the Parisian Salon scene. Willy runs a Warholian-style factory, employing young writers to churn out literary works. So, when he notices his wife’s flair for writing, he quickly encourages her to pen a book based on her school days, which he then publishes under his own name. 

The result, Claudine à l’école, becomes the most popular book of 1900 France. 

Knightley – an actor who truly knows her way around a corset – really shines as Colette, portraying her evolution from trusting teen to assertive woman in a myriad of subtle ways. Her marriage is also portrayed as multifaceted; loving, yet controlling. It makes sense that, as well as being a copyright infringement nightmare, Willy is also a Grade A philanderer. So, by way of attempting to even out his own unfaithfulness he encourages his wife to pursue affairs with women. It is through these affairs, including one with transgender pioneer ‘Missy’, the Marquis de Belbeuf (Denise Gough), that Colette finally finds her voice.

This modernity informs the film. The cast includes trans actors in cisgender roles, while black and Asian actors play characters who were white in real life. The costumes are phenomenal, and the script is pacey and smart, too. And it is also worth noting that, within the bones of Colette, lies another love story: that of director Wash Westmoreland and his co-writer, creative partner and late husband Richard Glatzer, who died shortly their film Still Alice was decorated at the 2015 Academy Awards. Indeed, when Westmoreland asked Glatzer what their next project should be, Glatzer responded simply: “Colette”. 

This film, Westmoreland’s labour of love, has ensured that Glatzer’s wish has become reality. 

Although it’s been over a century since the events depicted, Colette’s ascent to independence has only increased in relevance. She was a woman who lived authentically as herself without confusion, shame or apology, and a freedom many of us are still striving to possess. And her story, that of a woman emerging from behind a male ego and making a place for herself in the world, is one we can all learn from in 2019.

Colette is in UK cinemas from 11 January.

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Emily Gargan

Emily Gargan is one of Stylist’s resident film critics. She has a deep love for Pedro Almodóvar, Winona Ryder, felt-tip pens, and dogs named after food.

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