Review 2006

Keris asks:
Can you explain the appeal of Keira Knightley?

On the dvd for his film The Jacket, director John Maybury tells the story of how the British actress Keira Knightley ended up being cast as the American diner waitress in his film. He describes how he had seen a number of young actresses who would have been perfect for the role and had a short list but when he went to see his financiers and producers, they told him that actually if he didn't cast Knightley they wouldn't make the picture.

Maybury says he met Knightley and they both sat looking at each other, and he interpreted the pregnant pause to indicate that neither of them really wanted to be there. He made his pitch:
"I don't really want you in this film. You have to explain to me why you want to be in this film." Bold statement to make to the person whose cache will essentially bankroll his enterprise.
"Well" she said, "If I don't make this film I'll be stuck in corsets for the rest of my career."
He was able to happily cast her on the spot. Caught off guard, he simply hadn't expected her self awareness and sassiness.

I had much the same reaction watching her performance in the film. Her name flashes up amongst the credits and given everything else that is going on, with the interesting editing and Iraq War flashbacks you do wonder what part she's going to be playing. When she arrives somewhat later, outside a diner looking all sullen, she does seem to be miscast and there is a period where she has little dialogue and part of the tension of the film is in awaiting the arrival of her American accent. When it does speak somewhat later, it's actually very good, reminiscent of Winona Ryder.

Meanwhile it becomes apparent that she's actually giving a very good performance, complementing rather than trying to live up to what Adrien Brody is doing as the broken, possibly time traveling man. He's understated and so is she and despite everything you'd expect their chemistry works. It's a pattern that I think is repeated in most of her performances - there's a very real sense each time of 'oh no not Kiera Knightley' and then sometimes, somehow she nullifies your prejudices.

She has her doubters, as the tone of the question suggests. I was in a pub not that long ago, when those posters for Tony Scott's Domino were around town. Someone had commented on how dreadful they were and somehow the conversation turned to Knightley and it was interesting to see that although the men were all in agreement that they liked her - work - all of the women hated her and some went into details which included the shape of her face, her hair and her figure, it was almost pathological. But in a non-scientific google poll, "I love keira knightley" offers 1620 hits, whilst "I hate keira knightley" gives just 84 so she must be doing something right (although it should be noted that adding in misspellings of her name add in an extra fifty or so).

She has an unattainable quality; far from the girl next door, she reminds me of a middle class swan in school who lived in the affluent part of Liverpool whom everybody fancied but was too good for all of us trolls. I'm guessing that some men fancy her because she's out their reach and some women hate her because, perhaps unconsciously, she reminds them too much of the girl or woman who'll blank them in the corridor at work or always seemed to be wearing the perfect everything.

But this ignores her performances and I think that's the source of her appeal for the rest of us. The first time I remember seeing Knightley was in Nick Hamm's The Hole in which she was one of the four students trapped in the eponymous dank, dark place. It's one of the few times the actress has played evil, as Frankie, the regulation grammer school bitch. Although Thora Birch was still in the glow of American Beauty and stole the film, I think Knightley was the other real survivor and I'd guess this was the performance that led casting agents to take notice.

It's a shame that since then she has been largely stuck in romantic roles but they've never been that similar - unlike Meg Ryan, for example, she's never playing the same character. There's a big difference between her turn as Lizzy Bennett in Pride & Prejudice and the wood nymph version of Guinevere in King Arthur. She has a surprising range that is often forgotten and has the capacity to improve what is not necessarily a great film.

Love Actually, in which everyone has a role that is only slightly larger than most cameos, is probably the decider. In a few short scenes, the audience is supposed to understand why Andrew Lincoln is infatuated with her, playing his best friend's new wife. If when she arrives at his flat with her banoffe pie because she thinks he doesn't like her, if your heart melts it's because you like her. If however you think it's a cynical move from someone who can't understand why anyone wouldn't like her she's lost you. Personally, I'm sobbing at the end when he declares his love for her Bob Dylan style, and I hate the film.


Kat Sagbottom said...

She zzhuzhes her S's and that is one of the reasons I am annoyed by Ms. Knightley. Also not a fan of her turn in P&P, but that was doomed from the get-go. Far too pretty for Lizzie!

And okay, hate Love Actually... it's a pile of corny mush, but I just can't help but love it. I actually think the Keira storyline is the weakest of them all. This must be one of those male-female viewer differences, because for the life of me I have no idea why Mark is so smitten with Juliet. Even SHE seems boggled by the whole thing. She's pretty, and pretty unattainable... seems a snoozily dysfunctional obsession to me. But I'm catty and mean. Maybe it's just me.

Anonymous said...

About Love Actually.. well said! I hated the film and only watched it because of Keira.. she's my all time favourite actress!!! My fave Keira performances have been in Pirates 2, Pirates 3 and Pride and Prejudice. I'm looking forward to seeing her in Atonement, out later this year, based on the best-selling (apprently) novel by Ian McEwan.