Keira Knightley is hard to keep track of. Nearly two decades after her 2002 breakthrough hit, Bend it Like Beckham, the British star has no Instagram account and hasn’t touched her Twitter since 2010.
In October, she told The Hollywood Reporter’s ‘Awards Chatter’ podcast about her reluctance to be in the spotlight and why she prefers a quiet life with musician James Righton and daughter Edie, 3.
By 22, she was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder because of the pressure of her career and the press coverage that went with it. In her words, she had a mental breakdown; her confidence shaken by the side effects of Hollywood fame.
Regularly followed by paparazzi, Knightley said leaving her house became a battle. To attend the BAFTAS in 2008 for Atonement, she had hypnotherapy “so that I could stand on the red carpet and not have a panic attack,” she told The Hollywood Reporter.
“You’re getting all these nominations for all of these things, but press-wise, when I’m going into interviews, people are still saying, ‘Everybody thinks you’re sh-t,’ or focusing on your looks, or focusing on what’s wrong with you,” she said.
That could have been partly down to her roles.
Knightley starred in a cavalcade of stuffy, corset-and-bonnet movies intermingled with interminable Pirates of the Caribbean sequels and the odd contemporary foray, like her turn in perennial Christmas fave, Love Actually.
Sure, she was brilliant in Pride and Prejudice, but she fast became one of those promising young actors who gets typecast and stuck in a period-film rut.
The exception was 2011’s A Dangerous Method with Michael Fassbender and Viggo Mortensen, where she again kicked into something truly interesting.
Seven years on and now 33, she returns with something that offers a similarly juicy promise: Colette, the tale of a French author who refused to be hidden.
“I learned my trade. I did it very publicly, but I have learned my trade, and technically, whatever you need me to do, I can deliver it,” Knightley said.
“I’m in a good place, where I feel pretty confident about what I can do.”
That confidence and all Knightley’s talents are brought to Colette. Once again, it’s a period piece, but one that stretches the boundaries thanks to its namesake and lead role: a magnificent woman thoroughly unwilling to play by the rules.
As Manohla Dargis, of The New York Times, put it, Colette “had one of those lives that make biographers giddy”.
Directed by Wash Westmoreland, working from a script he co-wrote with his late husband Richard Glatzer and Rebecca Lenkiewicz, Colette sees Knightley take the eponymous lead as Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette.
The headstrong and exuberantly bisexual French author scandalised and thrilled early 20th-century Paris with her trend-setting Claudine novels. The illustrations alone sparked copycat outfits and hairdos.
A country girl at heart who moved to Paris as a 20-year-old, Colette drew on her teenage longings to titillate the masses, although initially under her husband’s nickname, Willy. Dominic West plays the boorishly controlling man with an undeniable rapscallion charm.
Not one to be kept locked up writing (literally at one point) behind the scenes, Colette soon begrudges his boastful gloating over her words and many infidelities, including with one woman they wind up fighting over.
Set in the sort of high society that dallies with low lives, Colette’s Paris was one of vaudeville clubs, circus acts and frolics with the famous authors and philosophers of the Belle Époque. Knightley revels in it, deftly delivering both her trademark sweetness and a far saucier side.
Also brilliant is Denis Gough as Missy, an upper class woman with a penchant for donning men’s top hat and tails, with whom Colette has an enduring affair as Willy fades away.
The real Colette went on to be wilder still, taking up everything from intrepid reporting to airship flying, not to mention a dubious dalliance with her stepson (one of many, many scandals).
A history lesson and feminist celebration wrapped up in a thrillingly fun package, Colette is a hoot and a half, with Knightley – impeccably attired in a fabulously louche wardrobe – clearly having a ball in a sparklingly witty career highlight that bends it into the back of the net.
Colette opened in cinemas around the country on December 20.