By Jason Solomons

Keira Knightley finds her voice in this smart, true-ish period piece about the French novelist who, years after the events of this picture, gave us the character of Gigi.

Keira’s been on our screens for nearly 20 years since she burst through in Bend It Like Beckham – ah yes, I remember it well (very funny Gigi reference, thanks) – so we’ve watched her grow up, and that’s oddly what happens here, too, as she goes from 19 to 34 years old, starting the film as an innocent country girl who comes from Burgundy to belle époque-era Paris and catches the roaming eye of one of the city’s most notorious and charismatic libertines, Willy, also a wealthy publisher.

He’s played with dancing-on-tables gusto by Dominic West, and we know he’ll be having affairs pretty soon. Meanwhile, when they’re not smashed on absinthe and hanging out with Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Colette writes a bestseller, a sort of autobiographical story about a character called Claudine, a country girl in the big city. 

Colette’s book becomes a smash hit, spawning merchandise, clothing and even a Claudine haircut. And she churns out three more Claudine books, but they’ve always got Willy’s name on the cover and, despite the fact that, as the age of photography dawns, they soon become one of Paris’ first celebrity couples, he won’t budge or give her any public credit. He even shuts Colette up in her room so she’ll write him some more hits.

But Keira’s Colette juts out that fine, porcelain jaw and strides out on her own. While Paris is enjoying an artistic and industrial awakening, she joins in the fun and flirts with an American heiress (Eleanor Tomlinson, off of Poldark) and then falls for a cross-dressing aristocrat called Missy (Denise Gough), who looks tremendous in a suit and tie.

In fact, everyone looks good in the cabaret light of this movie, dressed by costume designer Andrea Flesch, who goes to town with the little hats and lacy frills but gives everything a slightly faded, lived-in touch, as if turn-of-the-last-century Paris is desperate for dry cleaning to be invented.

The film is directed by a chap from Leeds called Wash Westmoreland, who’s been living in LA for years and co-directed Julianne Moore to an Oscar in the wrenching dementia drama Still Alice in 2015. Making Colette was the last wish of his former creative and life partner Richard Glatzer (he died after complications from motor neurone disease and tapped out the word COLETTE with his toe just before his last breath), so there’s a poignancy and a defiance to the whole film, where again the theme is that of a woman battling shackles. Here, it’s society, men, money and some flouncy dresses that encumber her progress.

It’s not all perfect. The film doesn’t quite light up as you’d wish it to; it could have done with some laughs, and for all the talk about sex, it isn’t actually very sexy. Shot with Budapest doubling for Paris, you do wonder why it isn’t actually all in French with, say, Jean Dujardin as Willy and, ooh, Lea Seydoux as Colette.

But Keira is good here, perfectly capturing a woman growing into her maturity and sophistication while grimly setting her mind to self-determination, financially and artistically. A poster girl, like Jane Avril, but for the Time’s Up generation – ironically, one who would gladly punch Maurice Chevalier in the face for singing Thank Heaven For Little Girls…