|Daisy Ridley in Ophelia, Rupert Everett in The Happy Prince and Keira Knightley in Colette.|
Sundance 2018: Keira Knightley and the new wave of progressive costume drama
With Knightley starring as Colette – alongside Rupert Everett’s Oscar Wilde biopic and Daisy Ridley as Hamlet’s Ophelia – the period drama has never looked so interesting
Sat 20 Jan 2018 06.00 GMT Last modified on Sat 20 Jan 2018 06.03 GMT
The Sundance film festival has sold itself for 40 years as the champion of cutting-edge, radical independent cinema; not a natural habitat for the stiffly costumed and perfectly spoken habits of the literary-inflected costume drama. But this year a choice selection of such films have found their way to Sundance, at a time when the period film has gained considerable currency as an illuminator of contemporary social issues. The Happy Prince, Rupert Everett’s Oscar Wilde biopic about the writer’s final years will be joined at the festival by Ophelia, a reworking of the Hamlet story starring Star Wars’ Daisy Ridley, and Colette, a biopic of the transgressive French literary icon that stars costume-pic veteran Keira Knightley.
All three can claim to be part of a new wave of socially conscious period films: The Happy Prince examines Wilde’s years in exile after his release from jail in 1897, as he struggled with impoverishment and social disgrace, before dying in 1900. Everett, who directs as well as stars as Wilde, said the writer was his “patron saint” and that Wilde “is a kind of Christ figure in a way for every LGBT person now on their journey”. An adaptation of the young-adult novel by American writer Lisa Klein, Ophelia puts the celebrated “mad” Shakespeare character centre stage, in a reimagining that will clearly strike a chord with the #MeToo generation. And Colette, which emerges from the same production stable as the groundbreaking lesbian romance Carol, focusses on the French author and sexual boundary-pusher, best known for the boarding school Claudine series as well as Gigi, the 1944 novel about a convention-defying young woman who is trained to be a “courtesan”.
Stephen Woolley, the British producer of such films as The Crying Game and Made in Dagenham, is part of the team behind Colette (as well as Carol), and says that “period films can often be more persuasive on contemporary issues – political, gender, sociological”. He adds: “Despite its turn of the last century setting, Colette feels as up to the minute as any movie made last year. Its themes, including female empowerment, could be snatched from today’s headlines.” Its star, Keira Knightley, has already made waves criticising contemporary cinema’s obsession with rape, saying she found historical characters “inspiring” and that she avoids films set in the modern day as “the female characters nearly always get raped”.
The rise of progressive-minded historical dramas – as opposed to the sunlit Laura Ashley-style period films of the 1980s and 90s (think Room with a View to Shakespeare in Love), and the likes of TV’s Downton Abbey – goes back to films such as Andrea Arnold’s radical adaptation of Wuthering Heights, which cast mixed-race actor James Howson as Heathcliff, and the Amma Asante-directed Belle, the 18th-century-set biopic of Dido Belle, who went from childhood among slaves on a West Indian plantation to frilled frocks in Kenwood House.
The best known recent example of the style is the low-budget Lady Macbeth, which again tackled race issues in a more apparently-conventional period: here, in an adaptation of the Russian story Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, Florence Pugh’s genteel Katherine, trapped in a loveless marriage, embarks on a Lady Chatterley style love affair with an estate worker, played by another mixed-race actor, Cosmo Jarvis. Its director, William Oldroyd, told the Guardian “That area of England was far more diverse than we have been led to believe. A lot of people make assumptions, and those assumptions are usually based on films they’ve seen already.”
Verdicts have not yet come in for these films, which all receive their world premieres in Sundance. But they represent a laudable next step in breaking down the fustiness and irrelevance of the traditional costume drama, and that is surely something to be welcomed.
Colette screens on 20 January, The Happy Prince on 21 January, and Ophelia on 22 January at the Sundance film festival.
Colette review – Keira Knightley is on top form in exhilarating literary biopic
4 / 5 stars
The life of Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette makes for fascinating drama in a nuanced and inspiring film with a luminous central performance
Mon 22 Jan 2018 01.21 GMT Last modified on Mon 22 Jan 2018 01.35 GMT
No, not another biopic about a writer! Ugh, Keira Knightley’s in a corset again! Get all of that out of your system now because I’m here to tell you that Wash Westmoreland’s Colette is exhilarating, funny, inspiring and (remember: corsets!) gorgeous, too.
The first third of this story is pretty traditional. Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (Knightley) is a country girl waiting to get whisked away into marriage by the worldly literary “entrepreneur” known simply as Willy (Dominic West). When the new bride is presented at the salons, Parisian gossips are stunned. The notorious libertine Willy is to settle down?
While his admiration of his new bride is sincere, his desires are not entirely stunted. But Colette (as she is not yet known) doesn’t exactly sit idly when she learns of his infidelity. She demands honesty in their marriage and, for a time, she gets it. She also saves the family’s finances when her book that Willy initially rejected for publication is reworked, branded “a Willy novel” and becomes the talk of all Paris.
Much of what makes this film so fascinating is the not-quite-villain-but-certainly-not-hero role Willy plays. It’s a very juicy role for Dominic West, and undoubtedly the best film performance he’s ever given. (I’ve never in my life seen a man look dashing even while flatulating.) The obvious read is that Willy exploited Colette in ways bordering on cruelty. (He even locks her in a room and shouts “write!” when her initial Claudine novel demands a follow-up.) Westmoreland’s film doesn’t exactly excuse him, but does offer context about his contributions to Colette’s initial success as well as a realistic portrayal of how women writers were perceived at the time.
That doesn’t make it any easier for Colette as her husband steals all her glory. Luckily, they each have activities that keep them busy – for a stretch, the activity is sleeping with the same woman. Willy encourages Colette to link up with a bored Louisiana millionaire, but he doesn’t tell her that he’s visiting her apartment on alternating days.
This leads to a kind of understanding, or at least a delay for the inevitable reckoning. Willy’s indulgences lead to a depletion of funds, but what ultimately bankrupts him is producing a play featuring Colette and her new lover (the transgender pioneer “Missy”, the Marquise de Belbeuf). This failure forces Willy to sell the rights to the extremely popular Claudine character, and kickstarts Colette’s career as a vaudevillian.
There’s no shortage of domestic drama (and Knightley and West do fine work with the sharp screenplay Westmoreland co-wrote with Richard Glatzer and Rebecca Lenkiewicz) but the delay in building to a final knockout row is something of a revelation. We so often look to the lives of artists for meaning, but when dramatized they regularly end up being just another bit of soap opera. Colette’s life is deserving of nuance and care, and that’s what she gets in this film.
She also gets Keira Knightley is top form: luminous, clever, sexy and sympathetic. The scenes of physical intimacy are tasteful and few, but have quite an impact. Much of what drove Colette was a need to be recognized. Knightley will not suffer the same fate when this film is viewed by wider audiences.
Colette is showing at the Sundance film festival