A gritty, glamorous biopic
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A gritty, glamorous biopic

Keira Knightley and Dickie Beau in Colette.

Keira Knightley and Dickie Beau in Colette.

Paula Fleri-Soler writes about Colette – a 2018 biographical drama film directed by Wash Westmoreland, from a screenplay by Westmoreland and Richard Glatzer, based upon the life of the French novelist Colette.

Keira Knightley is earning rave reviews as Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, the French author and 1948 Literature Nobel Prize Literature nominee. The film charts the course of Colette’s marriage to Henri Gauthier-Villars, known as Willy (Dominic West), a successful Parisian man of letters, as she moves from her childhood home in rural France to cosmopolitan life in Paris.

Willy persuades Colette to write a novel, and thus Claudine is born. A semi-autobiographical novel about the titular character, Claudine is published under Willy’s name, and goes onto to become a massive success.

On the strength of that success, Colette and Willy become the toast of Parisian society; an early 20th century power couple and go on to publish more books… Yet the more successful they become, the more Colette struggles to claim her ownership of the novels and her rightful place in literary history.

“(Colette) was a woman well ahead of her time,” says Colette director and screenwriter Wash Westmoreland of Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, well-remembered for among many others, her acclaimed novels Chéri (1920) and Gigi (1944) – which went on to become a multi Academy Award-winning film

“We sensed there was a great story to be told as a movie, especially with regard to her marriage to Willy,” he adds. “Their relationship came at a pivotal time, the beginning of the modern age when there was a tectonic shift happening in gender roles; women were demanding more power in all areas of life – and men were resisting with all their might. All of this crystallised for Colette personally and professionally in that marriage.”

Producer Pamela Koffler notes: “Hers is a thrilling story, and one that is still so relevant. Colette is a very well-known artist, yet the real story of what she went through is something not well-known. 100 years later, we can all learn a lot from her.”

Colette was coolness

Producer Elizabeth Karlsen comments that the impetus to make the movie was its “female-driven narrative, about a woman who was incredibly important in terms of the history of women’s literature and politics. Colette questioned social mores, sexuality, gender. She was a game-changer. There is also a lot of wit and warmth present in the story of how Colette loved Willy but became her own woman”.

For Westmoreland there was only one actor who could play the role - Knightley. “She is one of the few people who can combine all the qualities needed to incarnate Colette,” he states. “Keira is possessed of incredible intelligence and wit - which were ever-present in Colette’s writing - and an innate understanding of portraying people of past times. She was also the right age to portray a woman from the ages of 19 to 34.”

Keira Knightley and Denise GoughKeira Knightley and Denise Gough

Karlsen opines that taking on a French icon such as Colette would be challenging for anyone, “but Keira is adored in France, and has a European sensibility”.

Westmoreland and Knightley met over a FaceTime conversation when they were on opposite sides of the world. “I was talking and thinking even faster than usual, and we had this great, immediate connection,” recalls the director.  “Then I looked over and saw I had 2 per cent power left, so I gave her the final pitch: ‘You will do this character better than anyone else alive.’ Keira said ‘Yes! Why not? Let’s do it!’ – and the phone died...”

Yet that brief conversation proved to be enough to convince Knightley to come on board. “Colette was coolness,” says the actor. “I was fascinated by the relationship between Colette and Willy. Wash and I clicked straight away; he very much had a vision that was clear and that was in the script. It was something that we could all hold on to.”

Colette also stars Denise Gough, Fiona Shaw, Robert Pugh, Eleanor Tomlinson, Julian Wadham and Ray Panthaki. The screenplay is by the late Richard Glat-zer, Wash Westmoreland and Rebecca Lenkiewicz from a story written by Glatzer.

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