Collette is one of many perfectly serviceable British period dramas, a film that mixes in just the right amount of ribaldry and rabble rousing to keep audiences engaged if not overly challenged. Wash Westmoreland, the director who guided Julianne Moore to an Oscar win with the melodramatic Still Alice, finds in Keira Knightley a fitting muse to tell the story of a lively, talented writer living under the shadows of her gregarious partner.
Eschewing the regal sounding moniker Henry Gauthier-Villars, Willy (Dominic West) is part charlatan, part guiding muse, a kind of proto-producer who gathers a retinue of writers to pen under his nom de plume. When he becomes infatuated with country girl Gabrielle Collette, she elaborates upon her childhood stories for him. With prodding by Willy, Gabrielle’s central character Claudine creates a cause célèbre.
Of course, Willy is even less eager to share the credit than he is to part with his earnings. This results in a tumultuous relationship that pits the young woman against her firmly established husband. The rise and fall of their relationship, combined with the literary backdrop, makes for an entertaining bit of fun, completely with luxurious costumes, bold witticisms and some literally rolling in hay.
Knightley is well cast as Collette, but the most fun comes from a scene-chewing West, channelling some of his “McNutty” into a drunken boor of a different age and setting. His rakish grin and piercing eyes lure both Collette and the audience in. Even as his talents fade, his ability to fascinate remains.
While the beats of the film occur just when one would expect, there’s enough interplay between the leads and a supporting ensemble to keep it from being too rote a telling. The film has an overtly political message, but manages to demonstrate the overcoming of injustices through Collette’s tenacity and intelligence rather than through dour monologing or polemical diatribe.
A fine if unspectacular look at one woman’s struggle and triumph in establishing her credentials and legacy, Collette entertains even if it rarely surprises while doing so.