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D: Wash Westmoreland / 111m

Cast: Keira Knightley, Dominic West, Denise Gough, Fiona Shaw, Eleanor Tomlinson, Ray Panthaki, Al Weaver, Julian Wadham, Shannon Tarbet, Aiysha Hart, Jake Graf, Robert Pugh

In France in 1892, Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, “Gabri” (Knightley), is a young woman whose father (Pugh) served in the army with renowned playwright and author “Willy”. Living in the quiet village of Saint Serveur, Gabri has led a sheltered life, so when she and Willy marry and she moves to Paris, the life he leads and his social circle prove something of a disappointment; it’s not the life she expected. Also unexpected is Willy’s carefree way with money – they’re always broke – and his fondness for other women. But being in Paris has awakened Gabri’s gift for writing, and though Willy is initially critical of her work, when bailiffs start calling and it looks as if they have no other choice, he convinces her to write a novel based on her school days. Published under his name, the novel is a runaway success, and is soon followed by two more, both equally as successful. But while Willy is happy to reap the fame and fortune, and keep Gabri’s talent hidden from everyone else, it’s not long before Gabri – now calling herself Colette – decides that remaining anonymous isn’t what she wants – or deserves…

A heritage picture through and through, Colette gives Keira Knightley yet another opportunity to prove that when it comes to costume dramas, there’s something about them that brings out the best in her. Beginning the movie in long pigtails and with a gauche demeanour that highlights Gabri’s inexperience of the world, Knightley continually adds layers to the character that allow her to grow in front of the viewer, and to stake a place in our hearts. It’s not a flamboyant performance, and it’s not designed to overwhelm the other actors or the material. Instead, Knightley shows the quiet determination and increasingly fierce will that Gabri develops as she transitions from average country girl to gifted literary icon. As she battles her husband’s prideful arrogance and sexist beliefs, Colette emerges as the woman Gabri was meant to be, and seeing Knightley navigate the narrow social and emotional pathways of the time highlights again her strengths as an actress. There’s an intuitiveness to her portrayal that’s impressive in the way that it allows her to shade her performance, and to make it subtler than the usual requirements of a costume drama. Quite rightly, she dominates the movie from start to finish.

Which is good news for the movie as a whole, as otherwise this is a period piece that adheres to the standard template of period pieces everywhere, and which does its best not to rock the boat in terms of visual flair, dramatic emphasis, the other performances, Westmoreland’s attentive yet straightforward direction, and Thomas Adès’ stalwart score. It’s not quite a pedestrian movie, but in terms of its structure, and its approach to the details of Colette’s life (and lifestyle), it’s very much a “safe” movie. Colette’s attraction to other women is played matter-of-factly, but the decision to do so, and for Willy to be unconcerned about it, robs the movie of any impact that these scenes could have generated. And many of the confrontations between Colette and Willy, though played in earnest and providing Knightley and West with moments to shine, are still part and parcel of what we’ve come to expect from a movie such as this one. It’s all handsomely mounted, with terrific attention to period detail, but it’s also too clean and sanitary, as if the characters’ prosaic surroundings had to match their constrained emotional outbursts. And for all the sense that the world Colette inhabited was on the cusp of change, here that change remains frustratingly under-developed, leaving the movie to make only a modest impact over all.

Rating: 7/10 – a first-rate performance from Keira Knightley helps Colette overcome a number of unfortunate production decisions that hamper the movie from achieving its full potential; still likeable, and with flashes of mordaunt wit that are deftly handled, it’s a movie that could have been richer and deeper and more layered, but which settles for telling a by-now quite standard tale of female empowerment.

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