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Keira Knightley in “Colette.”

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Starring Keira Knightley, Eleanor Tomlinson, Fiona Shaw; directed by Wash Westmoreland; 112 minutes; R for some sexuality and nudity. Grade: C+

Movies based on real people have one job: Be at least as interesting as the lives they portray. With a woman such as Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, an early 20th century writer best known for her erotic novels, that should have been an easy bar to clear.

We join Colette (Keira Knightley), as she was widely known, and lover Willy (Dominic West) when she’s living in a small village in Burgundy, and he’s her city-mouse counterpart. They marry, and he brings her to Paris, where Willy is head of a publishing house dubbed “the Factory.” There, a team of writers crank out fiction, all of which is published under Willy’s name.

When the writers run dry, Colette takes up her pen and produces a series of semierotic novels about the adventures and misadventures of Claudine, a country girl who ends up in Paris. The novels might be based on Colette’s life, but Willy takes the credit.

That’s a story we’ve seen. A woman writer finds her voice, only to have it hidden. That’s not the only tale “Colette” tries to tell, though. As she becomes more worldly, her sexual tastes begin to shift.

One would think, then, that the film would be saturated with Colette’s passion and desire — not only in a sexual sense, but also for a life beyond what’s offered to her. It’s there that “Colette” stumbles.

In the end, director Wash Westmoreland seems unsure of what kind of movie he’s making. A salacious sexual romp? A feminist story of a woman suppressed? A modern look at the spectrum of gender and the fluidity of sexuality? That hesitancy shows.

Colette’s story is a good one. But here it’s shakily told. As a tale about a woman whose life was defined by fire, “Colette” lacks much of a spark.

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