On November 21, the highly anticipated “The Imitation Game” will be released in the United States. The film stars Benedict Cumberbatch in the title-role and follows the true story of Alan Turing, an English mathematician, who cracks Enigma codes during the darkest days of World War II. Apart from “The Imitation Game” being a film about a very interesting historical subject, it is also Keira Knightley’s twelfth period performance in eleven years.
During these eleven years, Keira Knightley has portrayed many brilliant and complex characters, from her iconic Elizabeth Bennet in Joe Wright’s “Pride & Prejudice” to the beautiful and fierce Elizabeth Swann in Gore Verbinski’s “Pirates of the Caribbean” series. What all these twelve characters have in common, is that all live in the past and Knightley has travelled to their time periods fluently and flawlessly to portray them.
But why is Knightley so perfect as a “woman of the past”? To Entertainment Weekly, the actress said: “I like the fact that you can completely dive in to a total fantasy — because it’s total escapism.” Now, it is time for The Focus Pull, to investigate the secret behind Knightley’s affinity for costume dramas with a top 10 of her performances in period pieces.
10. Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003) – Directed by Gore Verbinski
In 2003, Gore Verbinksi’s “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl” was released and it launched Keira Knightley’s career both as an actress and as a “woman of the past.” The film follows the story of blacksmith Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) as he accidentally teams up with the eccentric “Captain” Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) to save the love of his live, the governor’s daughter Elizabeth (Keira Knightley). “Pirates” was a box-office hit and it would set the tone for Knightley’s entire career.
The film sets in the 18th Century, which means tight corsets, big dresses and perfectly styled hairdos. At the age of only 17, Knightley had a very different impression on doing period pieces: “When I first read the script, I remember thinking to myself, ‘Oh, this is going to be easy! I’ll sit in the back of carriages, I’ll wear pretty dresses, I’ll pout a bit; it will be fun.’” Little did she know, she would be doing this in the eleven years following “Pirates.” In 2005, Knightley said in an interview with Daily Mail: “The whole point of the period costume in “Pirates,” is that you can’t breathe, you can’t move and all the rest of it.”
“She’s the real thing,” says director Gore Verbinski about the actress. “She can act. Obviously, she’s gorgeous, but there’s a thought in her head in every scene.”
9. King Arthur (2004) – Directed by Antoine Fuqua
In 2004, a new take on the classic story of the Knights of the Round Table emerged, in the shape of “King Arthur.” Just like in the original stories, the Roman Empire had just collapsed and Arthur has to battle to regain his power. “A highly intelligent reimagining of the legend of Arthur,” writes The Hollywood Reporter of the action-packed motion picture.
In “King Arthur,” Knightley portrays Guinevere, but not in the most traditional way. “We’ve only ever seen Guinevere as the damsel in distress, my Guinevere is nothing like that,” says the actress. In Antoine Fuqua’s take on the classic story, Guinevere is a warrior woman – and this made Knightley accept the role. “British women used to fight alongside the men,” she said to Cosmopolitan back in 2004, when the film had just been released. “So it is historically accurate!”
“She’s amazing,” says director Antoine Fuqua. “When you meet her, she’s a punk, but when you put her on film, this woman explodes onto the screen – and you fall in love with her.” What Knightley brings to period pieces, is not only beauty and femininity, but also strength and power. She isn’t just a pretty picture, she gives the picture depth.
8. Silk (2007) – Directed by Francois Girard
“Silk” is an undoubtedly beautiful film about a 19th Century young silk-merchant (Michael Pitt) who has to leave his wife (Keira Knightley) to travel to Japan and falls in love with a concubine (Sei Ashina). The story is based on a book by Alessandro Baricco and for Knightley, it was the reason to join this project. “With ‘Silk,’ I was obsessed by the book,” the actress says in an interview with The Guardian. “I thought it should never be made into a film. Then they offered me a part in it, and I think if anyone is going to be involved in this bastardisation it’s going to be me.”
7. Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (2007) – Directed by Gore Verbinski
Four years after the release of the first “Pirates of the Caribbean” installment, the third film was released, titled “At World’s End.” This time Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) teams up with another eccentric “captain,” Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), and the love of his life, Elizabeth (Keira Knightley), to save Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) from the dead. The dynamics might not have changed, but the characters sure have – to the delight of Knightley.
“The one thing I asked for over and over again, was a sword,” the actress says in an interview about the first installment. “I fight with candlesticks and with big, long Aztec golden poles, but nobody gives me a sword!” The third installment of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise is the one where Knightley finally gets her way. Her character, Elizabeth, was once a damsel in distress, but in this installment she becomes a pirate-queen. Knightley has more action sequences, but to IndieLondon, the actress admits: “I quite like corsets actually; it kind of gives you a character. You feel so ladylike.” She might not wear the gowns she wore in the first two installments anymore, but the actress is still ladylike, proving that femininity and strength do go together.
6. A Dangerous Method (2011) – Directed by David Cronenberg
David Cronenberg, best known for “Naked Lunch” (1991) and “Maps To The Stars” (2014), directed a film about the origins of psychoanalysis in 2012, titled “A Dangerous Method.” In the film, Cronenberg investigates the working relationship between Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen). An element between the two men is Sabrina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), a patient suffering from hysteria, who eventually develops a romantic relationship with Jung.
“It’s the sort of role anyone that wants to be an actor would kill for,” says Knightley to Indiewire. “I love doing things that frighten me.” The part of Sabrina Spielrein, although still a period-piece performance, is very different from previous works. In earlier costume drama’s, Knightley’s characters were always beautiful and always relatable. As a viewer, you could very easily relate to Knightley’s character, even though they live in a completely different time period. Knightley portraying a character suffering from hysteria, is a complete change of pace – and a welcome one at that, according to Peter Travers, from Rolling Stone. “Knightley, whose jaw-jutting, heavily-accented and unfairly criticized portrayal gives the film its fighting spirit,” he writes.
5. The Edge of Love (2008) – Directed by John Maybury
“The Edge of Love” might be Knightley’s most underestimated performance to date. The film follows the story of Dylan Thomas (Matthew Rhys) and the two loves of his life: his feisty wife Caitlin (Sienna Miller) and his childhood sweetheart, Vera (Keira Knightley). The script was written by Knightley’s mother, Sharman MacDonald, who wrote the part of Caitlin with her daughter in mind; Knightley, however, preferred the role of Vera. “I don’t know why I wanted to play her instead,” says Knightley to The Independent. “But the first time I read the script, I was incredibly moved by Vera. She was a much quieter character than Caitlin, and I love the way she becomes stripped down, completely tragic and beautiful.”
Perhaps that is another reason why Knightley is so perfect for costume dramas: the tragicness of her beauty and the way she conveys this beauty on screen. No one does vintage haircuts or trench coats or satin gloves better than Knightley. The costumes look perfect on her and every shot of “The Edge of Love” looks like an authentic photograph – with Knightley as the shimmering star.
4. The Duchess (2008) – Directed by Saul Dibb
One of Knightley’s most prominent reasons for doing period pieces is because she loves history. “I love reading historical novels,” the actress told TV Times. “…and watching period pieces as well as performing in them.” Shortly after the release of “The Duchess,” Sam Wollaston from The Guardian asks Knightley is she has been cast in so many costume dramas by design. “This has happened by accident rather than by design,” the actress says. “I think I’ve simply read better characters in period pieces than I have in contemporary. But I haven’t been kind of going, ‘I really want to do another period film.’ I’ve just been led by what scripts I’ve thought were good, and what filmmakers I thought were good.”
Knightley loves doing films with a tight connection to the past and audiences and critics all over the world love her doing this. Peter Travers from Rolling Stone describes Knightley as “an actress with a gift for bringing humor and heat to period pieces.” Knightley shows us that those women living in the past are not that different from women living in the present. She breaks down the barrier with her charm, but also with the reality she brings to these characters.
3. Atonement (2007) – Directed by Joe Wright
In “Atonement,” Knightley once more pairs up with director Joe Wright, for the adaptation of Ian McEwan’s much beloved novel. The story is set in the 1930s, when 13-year-old Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan) makes a mistake that would alter the lives of her older sister, Cecilia (Keira Knightley) and her lover, Robbie (James McAvoy).
“Cecilia, as played by Knightley with stunning style, speaks rapidly in that upper-class accent that sounds like performance art. She is so beautiful, so graceful and so young,” writes Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times on Knightley’s performance in “Atonement.” From the way she holds her cigarette, her proudly tilted chin and her fragile yet strong stature, she portrays the character to the fullest, with her body and soul. In an interview with IndieLondon, Knightley says: “I think all you’ve got as an actress is your face, your body and what’s inside your head and your voice – those are my tools, and I have to use them.”
2. Pride & Prejudice (2005) – Directed by Joe Wright
Keira Knightley’s performance in Joe Wright’s adaptation of Jane Austen classic tale “Pride & Prejudice” is considered to be her best and most famous one. In the film, she portrays Elizabeth Bennet, a young and feisty young woman living in 18th century England, who struggles with love, marriage and morality. “Knightley’s performance is so light and yet fierce that she makes the story almost realistic,” writes Roger Ebert of Chicago Sun-Times, hereby pointing out Knightley’s affinity for costume dramas. She portrays women living in the past so naturally, so vividly, so realistically.
In an interview with the Daily Mail, Knightley was asked about the costumes: “’Pride & Prejudice’ was a very easy corset experience for me,” the actress laughs. “For me, what was really important was that you got a sense that these girls could really run around in a field, walk for miles, do anything they wanted in their clothes.
“I think reason that ‘Pride & Prejudice’ as a story has been so popular for so long is that fundamentally it doesn’t matter when you set it,” Knightley says. “For me it’s about growing up, about making mistakes, it’s about love and it’s about thing that are as relevant today as then.”
1. Anna Karenina (2012) – Directed by Joe Wright
In Joe Wright’s adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s classic, Knightley is absolutely perfect as a young woman living amongst the 19th Century Russian aristocracy. Knightley’s regal pose, graceful body language and fragile frail fit Anna’s character wonderfully. The actress wears the elaborate costumes and corsets and heavy headpieces as if she does so every single day. In “Anna Karenina,” Knightley brings the royal women you see in masterful paintings to life.
In an interview with The Guardian, Knightley admitted she has to research the time-period in which her character lives, to fight off stage fright. “The only way to fight it was to make sure I knew my lines, my character and my movements so utterly, that I could fall back on them and trust I’d be OK.”Continue Reading Issue #23