By the 1890s, when this racy costume drama is set, the Belle Époque (or golden era) was in full swing. From the cancan of the Moulin Rouge to the bustling artistic Salons, Paris was enjoying a delirious rush to into modernity and new mores. It seems everyone was swept up in this enthusiasm. So, when we meet Colette (a perfectly-cast Kiera Knightley) languishing in her sleepy village we can see why she just has to make it to the metropole. Her ticket there is her handsome suitor Willy who sees her potential and soon introduces her to high society as his new young wife.
Willy (Dominic West) is already quite a player. He is an impresario/writer and general man about town. It turns out that he doesn’t so much write his works as employ a ‘creative team’ of ghost writers. It sort of works, the writers get published and Willy trawls for ideas and brings the work in.
Initially, shy young Colette colludes in this team effort and is flattered by the idea of being the power behind the throne. However, when she takes his suggestion of writing a frank account of her own journey from innocence to experience, things change.
‘Claudine’ – The character she creates – becomes the toast of Paris. The Sapphic and psychologically astute books fly off the shelves, a theatrical spin-off sells out, and she and Willy realise they have launched a city-wide phenomenon. (At one point the, mostly faultless, the script anachronistically refers to this as a ‘brand’. That is exactly what it has become but that is a very 21st century term for it.)
Willy continues to demonstrate his eclectic taste in amorous matters but when Colette decides to experiment a little herself, then the old double standard kicks in. Given that Colette is the real talent fuelling the whole enterprise, Willy has to tread very carefully in trying to assert his presumed masculine dominance.
Director Wash Westmoreland (who made the very different but utterly haunting Still Alice) is obviously having a lot of fun with this one and that exuberance warms the project. The script, co-written with his late partner Richard Glatzer, has some wonderful exchanges.
It’s Keira’s film though. She has blossomed into a fine actress in such period dramas (see for example her turn in the excellent Atonement). Here she once again grabs our attention and anchors the film with aplomb. The casting is perfect for a woman who is strikingly beautiful but so sharp that you underestimate her at your peril. The highly versatile West is also a good foil, and he brings the right touch of pathos to the vain-but-not evil Willy. There are a couple of moments where the gender politics seem a bit unnecessarily didactic but, all in all, this is a delightful and finely-crafted piece of cinema.