Knightley and West in the movie | Photo: IMDB/Bleecker Street
Colette has three things going for it that make it a must-see: Keira Knightley in one of her best roles to date, it’s a lush period drama that bucks the tropes of period dramas, and it approaches its subject of queer identity with finesse and enthusiasm.
Wash Westmoreland’s newest film, inspired by his late husband, tells the story of the real-life French novelist, Colette (Knightley).
Living in France at the dawn of the modern age, her life takes a turn when she finds success with her Claudine novels under the thumb of her husband, Willy (Dominic West).
The thing is, the novels are published under Willy’s name, not her own. It leads Colette down a path of self-realization in a number of ways, including her sexuality and agency.
Yes, all sorts of queer people existed in history
This movie is both subtle and open in its exploration of fluidity, both in regards to sexuality and gender, but what it manages above all is to be natural.
Not only does Westmoreland delicately — but not timidly — peel back the layers of Colette’s own sexuality and coming into her own, but he provides a showcase for genderqueer people, and the fluidity of masculine and feminine identities, and beyond.
There is no bold proclamation in the film — everything simply is, and it’s refreshing to watch. Should there be queer films with bold proclamations? Absolutely, but that doesn’t need to be every queer film. A lack of queer films and representation does not mean such a film must fulfill everything Hollywood is behind on; instead, there is worthiness in a multitude of POVs and stories.
Trans actors are cast in cis role in this film, while people of color play characters who were originally white, but there is nothing inauthentic in this. Instead, Westmoreland takes outdated ideas of the period drama and bucks them, deciding instead there should be no limitations.
For Colette, it’s a reminder that queerness has always existed. Even if certain terms or ideas are modern, being queer is not.
Colette existed, her genderfluid lover, Missy (Denise Gough), existed, and so too did people of color in society.
It keeps the truly important aspects of a period drama — a lively score that washes over you, lush cinematography, and costumes to die for — while turning everything else on its head.
One scene sticks out in the film. Perhaps because it feels so relevant to now, or perhaps because it’s simply a well-written and effective scene. Or both.
As Westmoreland explained to GSN, in Colette’s letters to Missy, she interchangeably used both male and female pronouns for Missy from letter to letter.
Draped across a couch, Knightley’s Colette discusses her relationship with Missy in a conversation with Willy. Every time Willy uses female pronouns for Missy, Colette gently but firmly uses male pronouns.
It’s an effective scene because it is quiet. It shows how easy respect is — how a person does not even need to think about their decision to respect and accept someone’s identity. There’s nothing overblown about it, Colette simply asserts the reality of the situation.
This idea of reality — of simple and pure acceptance — is what makes the film shine. Being open enough to the world to learn who you are, or who you could become, and accepting those around you for who they are, is precisely why Colette thrives by the end of the movie.
Feminism, feminism, feminism
Feminism and LGBTI rights are intrinsically linked, and this movie knows it.
Westmoreland loves his female characters, no matter how they identity or express themselves, and it is thrilling to watch. Colette, both character and film, is unabashedly feminist.
Despite being set over a century ago, the film feels particularly modern and timely. It is due to Knightley’s performance — as she brings such an acute presence to all her roles — as well as the frankness with which Westmoreland approaches his subjects.
Similar to the importance of supporting a film like Crazy Rich Asians, this film excels in diversity and a championing of stories and people across the board, and it feels like a true success for us all when that happens.
Westmoreland’s film is one of the best LGBTI films to come out of Hollywood, and it deserves to be seen.
Colette is now out in the US, and arrives in UK theaters on 25 January.
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