Sunday, April 29, 2012

Kiera Knighley: Distinctly English

Discreetly, quietly, and with the sort of delicate earnestness that she does most things, Keira Knightley has emerged as one of her generation's preeminent period actresses. 

This, however, is less a comment on Knightley's predilection for peddling in corsets in films such as Joe Wright's Pride & Prejudice (2005) and Atonement (2007), for which she has earned both Oscar and Golden Globe nominations, and more one on her faithful, almost throwback, workaday sense of what her job is and how to go about it. 

Knightley's film career nominally began a very long time ago in a galaxy far, far away—her first role in a major movie was a part as a handmaiden drafted into serving as an expendable double for Natalie Portman's Queen Amidala in Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace (1999). 

But in the intervening years, careening between smaller projects like John Maybury's The Edge of Love (2008) and Mark Romanek's Never Let Me Go (2010), and big-budget extravaganzas like the Pirates of the Caribbean films, she has managed to knit together a string of performances that are both emotionally complex and powerfully economical. 

"I first met Keira when she was 17," says Wright. "She was a goofy kid then. But she's always had a fiercely inquisitive nature. It's been a privilege to bear witness to her development."

Indeed, there is something distinctly "English" about Knightley's restraint as an actress that allows her to move naturally between characters and eras and genres—and not just because she's a born-and-bred Londoner who grew up steeped in the world of British drama folk. Her mother, Sharman Macdonald, is a playwright and wrote the script for The Edge of Love; her father, Will Knightley, is a veteran stage actor. 

If there is a thread that runs through her work, it's that her characters are frequently tangles of raw nerves: romantics hitched to impossible love; damaged souls searching for liberation; ethereal maidens who don't want to be saved; psychologically self-plumbing swirls of emotion masked by a kind of hesitant beauty. 

But Knightley has an ability to construct something solid and substantial out of those vulnerable fragments, whether she's playing a stylish socialite struggling to come to grips with her own imperfections and her husband's infidelities as she did in 2008's The Duchess or a young Russian woman drawn into a quasi-sadomasochistic relationship with her psychoanalyst as she did in last year's A Dangerous Method

"Keira is a perfect paradox," says Jude Law, who stars with Knightley in Wright's new adaptation of Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, due out this fall "On the one hand, she is a youthful, energized beauty, and on the other, an incredibly experienced, controlled professional." 

Adds Steve Carell, who appears opposite Knightley in Lorene Scafaria's Seeking a Friend for the End of the World: "I think what sets Keira apart is her ability to convey great strength and great vulnerability at the same time."


Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, which hits theaters in June, is about two neighbors (Carell and Knightley) who are drawn together as an asteroid hurtles toward the Earth. The film is a bit of a departure for Knightley—if only because it takes place in a contemporary setting and, as one can imagine, has some comic elements. 

"Keira has played some incredibly strong women over the years," says Scafaria. "They've been very brave roles, particularly in dramatic pieces. But it was so exciting to see her show this other side of herself, the wild child. She's fun—and funny." [Interview Magazine]

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