Keira Knightley is one of Britain’s biggest movie stars, but also one of our most underrated actors – we celebrate her best roles to date.
For almost 20 years now, Keira Knightley has been steadily building a catalogue of eye-catching performances on the big screen. Including this week’s new release Official Secrets, Gavin Hood’s docudrama about GCHQ whistleblower Katharine Gun, she’s avoided typecasting with a series of roles in eclectic movies.
It’s quite lazy to say that she’s only known for costume dramas when her filmography covers a wide range of leading and supporting roles outside of the blockbusters that made her a household name.
Along the way, she’s been labelled with one or two unkind nicknames about the woodenness of her performances in films that frankly weren’t up to the talent she’s shown elsewhere. This is in stark contrast to her early, worthier notices, which compared her to a younger Jacqueline Bisset or Julie Christie.
Overall, in her choices and her performances, Knightley has proven to be the most consistently strong players in modern British cinema. Beyond a small role in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace and her recurring part in the Pirates Of The Caribbean films, she has given solid supporting turns in films like The Imitation Game, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, and Everest.
Here, we’d like to highlight a few more of her best roles to date – some you’ll have heard of, others might be new to you, but all contribute to the picture of a frequently undervalued performer.
Jules Paxton – Bend It Like Beckham
Although the Pirates movies propelled Knightley to global mega-stardom, her earlier role as Jules in Gurinder Chadha’s Bend It Like Beckham is inarguably her breakthrough performance. She’s not the lead character here, but she plays the supportive best mate for all it’s worth.
Hers is a well-judged and generous supporting turn that spans from spurring on Jess (Parminder Nagra) to warring with her mother (the hilarious Juliet Stevenson) about the similar, albeit not-so-intense pressure to conform to traditional roles. In a film that bucks those expectations nicely, Knightley makes Jules far more than a typical tomboy.
Elizabeth Bennett – Pride & Prejudice
Just a couple of years later, between the first and second Pirates movies, Knightley bagged her first Academy Award nomination for playing the lead in Joe Wright’s nimble, crowd-pleasing Jane Austen adaptation. She ably leads a film that’s not concerned with mannered courtships as much as bringing out the passion and romance of the text.
As she squares off with Matthew McFadyen’s Mr Darcy for several rounds of bickering, Knightley’s instantly iconic performance is one of the main reasons this classic social comedy feels so modern and lively. Knightley has since reunited with Wright on two more literary adaptations – Atonement and Anna Karenina. Although theirs is a fruitful creative collaboration, Pride & Prejudice remains their best work together thus far.
Domino Harvey – Domino
Few sights in cinema are more enjoyable than an actor taking a risk and playing hard against type. And so, in the same year as she got an Oscar nod for doing a Jane Austen movie, Knightley starred in Tony Scott’s scrungy, hyperactive true-crime actioner Domino, playing the fashion-model-turned-bounty-hunter daughter of actor Lawrence Harvey.
It’s not our favourite of Scott’s films, and the director was frank about the film’s shortcomings in retrospect (“I didn’t let the movie breathe enough,” he told CinemaBlend in a 2009 interview, “I think I fucked up on that one.”), but it does have a bold, sinewy central performance from Knightley, who leaves nothing on the table in a lesser-spotted action role.
Georgiana Cavendish – The Duchess
Immediately after the third Pirates film, her next major leading role was a similar attack on her perceived English rose type, albeit from a different angle. The Duchess is a markedly more complex affair than many of the costume dramas being made around the same time, with its 10-year chronicle of the Duchess of Devonshire’s loveless marriage to Ralph Fiennes’ demanding duke.
Production on the film had been delayed for several years before it was released in 2008 while the filmmakers looked for their ideal Georgiana. As someone who had similarly experienced the pressures of being thrust into the public eye from an early age, Knightley gives a multi-layered performance that nicely sets up her post-swashbuckling career.
Ruth C – Never Let Me Go
This one is definitely worth another look, whether for Knightley’s performance or not. In addition to her turn, Mark Romanek’s understated but utterly heart-breaking take on Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go boasts an array of British rising stars, including Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield, Domhnall Gleeson, and Andrea Riseborough.
In a unique low-fi sci-fi setting (which we won’t spoil in case you haven’t seen the film), Knightley gives a brilliant supporting turn as a character who could easily have come across as pettier and more antagonistic in lesser hands. Ruth C may express her desire to go on living more selfishly than other characters, but it’s impossible not to sympathise with her by the end of the movie.
Penny Lockhart – Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World
If you were bowled over by Lorene Scafaria’s latest, Hustlers, it’s worth revisiting her apocalyptic road movie Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World. With an unstoppable asteroid set to wipe out life on Earth in just three weeks’ time, Knightley’s British ex-pat Penny is stuck in the United States with little to no hope of ever seeing her family again, and she’s only got depressed neighbour Steve Carell to hang out with as he travels across country to try and find his high-school sweetheart.
While Scafaria’s script has plenty of lighter moments, the quietly devastating tone of the comedy-drama can be summed up almost entirely by Knightley’s performance in a scene where she speaks with her loved ones on the phone. Bolstered by this deftly emotional turn, the film embraces the quirky implausibility of her romantic pairing with Carell and instead seizes on their personal connection as the end of days approaches.
Gretta – Begin Again
Begin Again not only gives Knightley the chance to show off her vocal range, but also puts her right up front in the very first frame of the movie. Playing jilted singer-songwriter Gretta, she puts her heart and soul into the opening acoustic performance and bombs with the basement bar crowd.
Happily, things pick up when she’s discovered by Mark Ruffalo’s disillusioned music producer, who encourages her to record an album independently after her works are plagiarised by her pop star ex. Far from the usual A Star Is Born narrative, their partnership is creative rather than romantic. Still, the two leads have chemistry to spare and Knightley shows yet another side to her screen presence in this light, independently spirited musical.
The Sugar Plum Fairy – The Nutcracker And The Four Realms
Although this lesser-seen live-action Disney effort generally received poor reviews, there were well-deserved notices for Knightley’s gloriously over-the-top performance as the simpering and spiteful Sugar Plum Fairy. It’s 180 degrees different from her role in Disney’s Pirates movies, but also completely unique in her filmography to date.
As mentioned, the film isn’t the best she’s ever been in, but there’s no denying how much fun she has hamming it up here. You might not know it to look at anything else she’s ever been in, but based on this alone, she does a fine line in larger-than-life characters too. What’s more, we could absolutely see her evolving into the kind of character actress who occasionally elevates supporting roles like these throughout her continually eclectic career.
Gabrielle Colette – Colette
Bringing things right up to date, 2019’s Colette shows Knightley in her period drama element once more, but similarly brings new dimensions to her screen presence as a leading lady. There are elements of her characters from The Duchess and Begin Again in this biopic of a woman who submits to her boorish husband (Dominic West, having loads of fun) taking credit for her literary works.
Still, it’s complicated than a story of mere exploitation. Indeed, Wash Westmoreland’s film charts how country girl Colette eventually comes to discover herself (and her own “astounding moxie”, as her boastful spouse puts it at one point) as a direct result of this flagrant identity theft.
Ultimately, one of the main benefits of her becoming a star at a relatively young age is that we’ve seen her grow as an actor on screen, and it’s impressive that each time she’s returned to this kind of film, which she easily could have been pigeon-holed in after Pride & Prejudice and Pirates, she’s always doing something new with it.
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