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
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”.