Second Chance: Keira Knightley

Over the years, negative assessments of Keira Knightley’s acting abilities have included the phrases ‘woeful’ and ‘so bloody awful it hurts my eyes’, with many critiques specifically focussing on the misplacement of her ‘posh girl accent’. While this last judgement might be more usefully aimed at some of her directors, ORWAV’s Second Chance feature returns to defend some of Knightley’s best work from the hatchet-jobbers.

Having been cruelly derided online for her infamous pouting and chin-jutting (just try googling either of those terms), there’s never been a time where Knightley has been more deserving of another chance.

For her ballsy, scene-stealing Joan Clarke in Morten Tyldum’s The Imitation Game, Knightley has pleasingly not been overlooked by awards bodies, though with Patricia Arquette (quite deservedly) sporting Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild wins for her alternately witty and tear-jerking turn in Boyhood, a BAFTA or Oscar win for Knightley is looking like a long shot. While she’ll face formidable competition at the BAFTAs tomorrow night and the Oscars next month, 2014 was an exceptionally strong year for Knightley, and one in which she continued to showcase the diversity encapsulated by earlier roles in the generically disparate projects Bend it Like Beckham (2002) and Pride & Prejudice (2005), the first of three collaborations with director Joe Wright.

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For those who might see her Joan Clarke, an assertive woman subverting the gender-based oppression of her time, as evidence of one-note ability because it’s the kind of role we’ve seen from Knightley before (Elizabeth Bennet in Pride & Prejudice, for example), her other 2014 releases provide the ideal foil.

Knightley is equally convincing as the kindly and irrepressible confidant of Benedict Cumberbatch’s Alan Turing, and as a slightly hopeless twenty-something fleeing adult commitment in Lynn Shelton’s Say When. Although it stretched her less, she oozed charm and provoked empathy as wounded singer-songwriter Gretta in John Carney’s Begin Again. 2014, however, isn’t the only year in which Knightley’s delivered impressive and affecting performances.

Despite receiving Golden Globe and Oscar nominations for her Elizabeth Bennet, it wasn’t until the release of 2007’s Atonement that Empire’s Helen O’Hara declared Knightley had finally staked a claim on a ‘grown-up part’. While Knightley proved herself the ideal casting for the paradoxically haughty and passionate Cecilia of Ian McEwan’s novel, she has arguably bested herself since.

In David Cronenberg’s 2011 picture, A Dangerous Method, Knightley was given a real showhorse of a part. As Sabina Spielrein, the first patient on whom Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) tries out Freud’s “talking cure”, Knightley has full license to shriek, contort herself and even jut that chin to her heart’s content. Especially throughout the film’s first half, Knightley has command of her entire posture, often writhing in response to inner torment as though being physically tortured, and with such gut-wrenching gusto that her performance actually becomes uncomfortable to watch.

Even when she’s less riled Sabina is constantly quaking or quivering almost imperceptibly. This extreme physicality, together with the gunshot quality Knightley brings to her delivery in Sabina’s more fraught moments, contrasts drastically with the stiff, buttoned-up nature of Fassbender’s Jung and Viggo Mortensen’s Freud. Knightley’s is by far the most impressive (and attention-grabbing) performance of the film, though it is one completely without vanity or coyness, even if we do see more familiar composure from her later on. Pulling off Sabina’s transformation from a borderline feral young woman terrorised by her past to a poised psychiatrist is further reason for congratulating Knightley’s performance in A Dangerous Method. Even her Russian accent isn’t bad, though oddly she wasn’t required to employ it again in Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina (2012).

All this isn’t to say that Knightley requires such high drama in order to show off her skill set. She’s equally at home in British romantic dramas such as Last Night (2010), in which her character Joanna spends a temptation-filled night with an ex-flame while her husband is away on a business trip. Knightley’s silent acting evokes the cogs of simultaneous attraction and guilt whirring in Joanna’s mind, elevating a clichéd scenario into a tense watch which rivals the parallel story of her husband’s evening for both nuance and depth.

Here’s hoping that at tomorrow night’s BAFTA ceremony, whether she secures a win or not, Keira Knightley will be discussed for the right reasons only, and celebrated for her consistent achievement on the silver screen.