The 10 Best Keira Knightley Performances

The 10 best Keira Knightley performances

Keira Knightley is one of Hollywood’s most respected and consistently excellent actresses.  In the 16 short years since she broke out in Bend it like Beckham, she has garnered a lot of award recognition.  It includes two Oscar nominations, three Golden Globe nominations, and two BAFTA nominations.  If there is a young woman role in a costume drama, Keira is almost always the go to.  Also, she is almost always amazing.  However, she isn’t all about just stuffy British period pieces. She has also tackled the action/adventure heroines, romantic comedy lead, and gritty, badass thriller chick.

To no one’s surprise,  Keira is getting more awards season buzz with her recent release of Colette.  Directed by Wash Westmoreland, director of Still Alice, the film follows a woman who is coerced into ghostwriting for her husband in 1890s Paris.  Knightley isn’t afraid to tackle big, heavy subjects. In Colette, she focuses on the sexual revolution.  As Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, she wants the respect she deserves and the credit she is due, regardless of the fact that she is a woman.  Once again, she hits it out of the park.  Since she already has a drama-heavy gem under her belt this year, we all now get to look forward to her Sugar Plum Fairy role in The Nutcracker and the Four Realms.  

Elizabeth Bennet in Pride & Prejudice (2005)

Most actresses, especially British actresses, feel it is a rite of passage to delve into Jane Austen in the course of their career.  In 2005, Keira Knightley took on the Hamlet of actress roles as Elizabeth Bennet.  In the first of three monumentally successful collaborations with director Joe Wright, Knightley truly shines and Elizabeth the way the source material needs her to.  Her chemistry with Matthew MacFayden’s Mr. Darcy is perfect.  Many people find this type of classical literature adaptation boring and a slog.  There isn’t the sex, the hijinks, or the violence that most modern moviegoers crave.  However, Pride and Prejudice is a pitch-perfect movie and really exhibits how well Knightley can carry a film.

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Georgiana in The Duchess (2008)

In The Duchess, it feels like Keira Knightley is playing the smartest, strongest woman of her career.  The titular Duchess is Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire. She is a woman of elaborate tastes, of ostentatious fashion sense, and one conscious of her bewildering power over men.  That is, over men who aren’t her grumpy Duke husband, played remarkably by Ralph Fiennes. Georgiana can bemuse and flirt with any man (or woman) who comes to court. She sways the peoples’ opinions simply through a new dress and wink and a nod.  However, she just can’t quite capture the heart of the Duke.  This is the role and tone that Kirsten Dunst and Sofia Coppola were trying to pull off in  Marie Antoinette.  The Duchess is a costume drama that Knightley brings a sense of modern tabloid flair to.  The entire situation feels like a combination of Princess Diana and Kylie Jenner.  Keira Knightley has never been more confident in her performance, and it perfectly translates through to Georgiana.

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Jules in Bend it Like Beckham (2002)

Bend it Like Beckham is the only film on this list where Keira Knightley isn’t the sole focus of the film.  However, this is the film where the world stood up and took notice of her. The story surrounds Parminder Nagra’s Jess, the daughter of an orthodox Sikh family that is mired in traditionalism.  Jess is obsessed with David Beckham and wants nothing else in the world to play soccer like her idol.  Two forces are keeping her from playing soccer.  Her family’s religious traditions and being a female.  Keira Knightley represents the women’s struggle side. She plays Jules and is the conduit by which Jess makes it to a soccer league.  Soon, they are fast friends and it is through Jules’s confidence, quirkiness, and love of life that Jess finds her strength to overcome the sexist atmosphere.  Knightley is her always bubbly self and she really assists in making this such a fun, pleasant experience.

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Domino Harvey in Domino (2005)

That’s right, Domino is on this list.  Mostly because this is one of the most against-type roles Keira Knightley has tackled.  Usually, she is in a full-blown costume drama or she is a charming sprite in a contemporary comedy.  However, In Tony Scott’s under appreciated actioner, she portrays Domino Harvey. Domino is the daughter of actor Laurence Harvey and became the most successful Bounty hunter of 2003.  Knightley had never been this visceral. As Domino, she is a violent badass. Also, she owns her sexuality and uses it as a tool and as a weapon. Amazingly, this is a far cry from what we are used to from Knightley.

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Sabina Spielrein in A Dangerous Method (2011)

This is the extreme opposite end of the spectrum from Keira Knightley’s strong, confident woman in Domino.  In A Dangerous Method, Knightley goes the troubled, vulnerable, and subjected to the whims of men route.  She portrays Sabina, an incredibly mentally ill woman who becomes the ward of the famous psychoanalyst, Carl Jung (Viggo Mortensen).  Playing crazy is a slippery slope. If an actor goes too over the top and cartoony, they will lose the sympathy of the audience. Well, Knightley goes REALLY big, playing a patient who is sexually aroused by violence, but somehow keeps a grasp on the entire thing.  As the story evolves, Sabine as straight-jacket crazy ward soon becomes Sabine as a lover and protege. However, Sabine never gets the respect she feels she deserves as a colleague and a woman.  Jung treats her like a plaything and a project, and the way Knightley portrays Sabine’s heartache is masterful. The film has the perversity and darkness one would expect from David Cronenberg, and Knightley fit right in.

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Cecilia Tallis in Atonement (2008)

In Keira Knightley’s second outing with Director Joe Wright, they took on Ian McEwan’s best-selling novel, Atonement.  Knightley plays Cecilia Tallis in a far more tragic and sexual role than in Pride and Prejudice.  She is the coquettish Tallis daughter who has fallen in love with her housekeeper’s college-educated son, Robbie (James McAvoy).  Their love affair taking place in dark corners is witnessed and misinterpreted by Cecilia’s younger sister, Briony (Saoirse Ronan). Eventually, through little white lies and accusations, Briony’s actions destroy the affair and lives of the two lovers.  Any mediocre actress can play “in love”.  It takes a special kind of actress to portray the amalgam of emotions that can surround the basic feeling of love.  Knightley’s Cecilia is passionate, ecstatic, euphoric, scared, nervous, anxious, and a million other things that the audience can feel by just looking at her face.  Upon Cecilia and Robbie’s are separation, those emotions are replaced by sorrow and devastation.  It is like a knife to the chest.

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Penny in Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (2012)

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World could have been a corny, episodic mess.  In the midst of a cataclysm, there could have been a silly follow-your-heart approach to the story that would have not worked.  However, as it sits, the film is a wonderful exposition on closure and friendship. Steve Carell plays Dodge, a man who is meeting his and world’s demise with odd resignation, and alone.  Also, Knightley plays Penny, his neurotic neighbor who has been secretly hoarding his mail. With the end nigh, she delivers a love letter to Dodge from an old flame. One thing leads to another and they decide to spend their last days on a trip.  He is going to see this old girlfriend. She is tailing along to meet up with her family.

For such a serious backdrop, the film is charming and light.  It avoids a lot of the end-of-the-world cliches. Carell and Knightley have a great chemistry together.  However, the film is on the list for one reason. There is a phone call that Penny has at one point in the film.  Knightley’s extraordinary performance should be patented and shown in every acting school across the world.  It is so honest, so devastating, and so perfectly suited to her character and to what has been happening in the story.  This single scene makes the entirety of the film worth your while.

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Anna Karenina in Anna Karenina (2012)

Yes, the title Anna Karenina highlights the central character.  Still, it is incredibly impressive that Keira Knightley can shine through as bright as she does.  2012’s Anna Karenina is directed by Joe Wright.  His direction is so brilliant that it could easily have eclipsed Knightley’s work as the massively troubled adulterer.  However, just as the hybrid stage/film direction sweeps across the screen, so does the emotionally powerful performance by the film’s star.  How Knightley didn’t take home every best actress award for this film is a baffling mystery.

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Gretta in Begin Again (2013)

If any of you are music lovers as well as cinephiles than you have to be well versed in John Carney movies.  His first was the wonderful Once.  His follow-up was the delightful Begin Again.  In sort of a riff on A Star is Born, Mark Ruffalo plays a down-on-his-luck music producer who has a chance discovery of Keira Knightley’s Gretta.  Gretta was the lyricist and girlfriend of the pop-star Dave (Adam Levine). She is currently in New York City nursing her wounds of their terrible breakup.  Her best friend drags her out to a bar and tricks her into performing a song. This is where Ruffalo sees her, and the sparks fly. Not romantic sparks. Creative ones.  Knightley plays Gretta with a beautiful reservation and vulnerability that not only makes you fall in love with her, but with her music.  John Carney has an uncanny ability to keep the love for the art form of music in the forefront of his films. This isn’t a cheesy romantic comedy.  This is a passionate tale about a producers love for music and how he inspires a sad, broken woman to feel the same way. Knightley never came across as an actress that would fit the pop-star role, but she certainly pulls it off in this film.

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Elizabeth Swann in the Pirates of the Caribbean Franchise (2003, 2006, 2007)

As Elizabeth Swann, the world fell in love with Keira Knightley.  In the middle of the super-budgeted swashbuckler The Curse of the Black Pearl, there was this impossibly beautiful young woman holding her own up against A-listers Johnny Depp, Orlando Bloom, and Geoffrey Rush.  Even though her performance is excellent, her role in the first film is a bit thankless.  It is the classic damsel in distress character. Pearl doesn’t do well in the Bechdel test.  However, by the time Dead Man’s Chest and At World’s End come around, things are different.  Knightley evolves Elizabeth into a strong, dangerous woman with her own plans and schemes.  That takes a lot of talent in this cinematic world of male-oriented piracy.

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Bonus:  Sabe in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999)

Many people don’t realize that Keira Knightley is part of the Star Wars universe.  That’s right.  She shows up here and there in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace as Padme’s double.  Who would have thought that she would eventually match the star power of Natalie Portman in just a few short years?

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