It’s hard to think of Keira Knightley and not picture her in love. Her portrayal of Elizabeth Bennet in Joe Wright’s heralded adaptation of Pride & Prejudice is one of the most iconic performances of our time. Knightley’s smoldering passion and determination brought new life to the beloved Jane Austin classic. As Stephen Holden wrote in his review for The New York Times, “Ms. Knightley is, in a word, a knockout, the balance has shifted. When this 20-year-old star is on the screen, which is much of the time, you can barely take your eyes off her.” Twelve years later, the pre-dawn moment when she finally confesses her love to Darcy (“Your hands are cold.”) is still seared into our collective cinematic memories as one of the most romantic moments, ever. See the clip at the bottom of the page to refresh your memory.
But Knightley’s amazing work hardly began, or ended, with that dew-soaked love scene. Born on March 26, 1985, into a theatrical family, Knightley has grown up on screen playing a remarkable range of characters. From athletic tomboy to literary icon, from passionate youth to complex woman, from action hero to comedy star, Knightley imbues each role with exceptional vitality and freshness. We have been extraordinary fortunate to have had Knightley in four Focus films––Pride & Prejudice, Atonement, Anna Karenina, and Seeking a Friend for the End of the World. Today we celebrate her remarkable life and the extraordinary characters she has brought to the screen.
Literature never looked so good
Looking over Keira Knightley’s filmography is like browsing a much beloved library. On it are the works of such great writers as Jane Austen, Leo Tolstoy, Charles Dickens, Boris Pasternak, Ian McEwan, and Kazuo Ishiguro. She is even set to play the famed author Colette in an upcoming film. Even though dyslexia made reading a challenge for her as a child, Knightley has always loved great literature.
When her agent put her forth to play Elizabeth Bennet for Joe Wright’s 2005 Pride & Prejudice, the prospect of playing the lead in Jane Austen’s masterpiece was almost too daunting to consider. “I was terrified …because I've been so obsessed by the book,” Knightley recounts.
Roger Ebert ranks the film as “one of the most delightful and heartwarming adaptations made from Austen or anybody else,” adding that “much of the delight and most of the heart comes from Keira Knightley.” Others, equally enthusiastic, nominated Knightley for a Golden Globe and Academy Award for her sparkling performance.
Two years later Knightley took on another literary icon––Cecilia Tallis in Wright’s adaptation of Ian McEwan Booker Prize-winning novel, Atonement. As an upper-class woman caught up in an impossible relationship with the housekeeper’s son, Robbie (James McAvoy), Knightley completely embodies the novel’s suppressed emotions of desire and despair. “Sylphlike Knightley, who says little but, radiant and beguiling, conveys volumes as a woman in the throes of longing,” writes the Washington Post.
As the title character in Wright’s 2012 Anna Karenina, Knightley became one of the most complex heroines of world literature. Knightley, who’d loved Leo Tolstoy’s masterpiece as a young girl, came to a different understanding re-reading the novel as an adult. “I see her as being much darker,” Knightley told Collider. “I thought that kind of moral ambiguity was a really interesting one to play around with.” Her multifaceted and modern interpretation came through on screen. Esquire magazine pronounced, “In Knightley, we finally have an Anna Karenina for our times.”
Swashbuckling and sophisticated
When she isn’t bringing literature to life, Knightley is often a full-fledged action star. In 2001, she showed off her athletic side as Robin Hood’s horse-riding, arrow-shooting daughter in Disney’s Princess of Thieves. The next year, she was the fast-kicking best friend in the runaway soccer tale, Bend it Like Beckham.
But her biggest adventure set sail when an eighteen-year-old Knightley starred opposite Orlando Bloom in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. In the sequels–– the 2006 Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest and the 2007 Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End––she continued to kick butt. “On the first one, they kept asking me what I wanted, and I said, ‘This is a pirate film. I want a sword fight’.” Knightley said. “So they gave me one. ”
Getting the last laugh
While Knightley’s renown for her beauty, taste, and agility, people sometimes overlook her sense of humor. Writer/director Lorene Scafaria, who cast her alongside Steve Carell in her apocalyptic romp Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, quickly caught on to her under-recognized comedic talent. "I knew she'd be amazing and stunning and super-smart," says Scafaria. "But here's the surprise; she is so damn funny.”
In the film, Knightley plays Penny, an impulsive young woman who befriends her upstairs neighbor Dodge (Carell) as a huge asteroid hurtles towards Earth. With the end nigh, the pair takes off on a road trip to discover what really matters to them in life. Audiences were thrilled at the star’s new direction. “Keira Knightley… is marvelously winning as Penny, all sharp elbows and dark laughter,” writes Newark Star-Ledger’s Stephen Whitty.
The Wright stuff
When Joe Wright was casting Pride & Prejudice, he considered Knightly, but thought she was “was probably too beautiful for the role.” After meeting her, however, he discovered the heroine he was looking for. “She had incredible wit and intelligence and a very strong personality,” Wright tells IndieWire. “Those qualities made me think that she doesn’t fit into the kind of preconceived ideas of what a girl should be. And that made me think she’d be perfect for Elizabeth.”
For the actress and the director that meeting would be the beginning of a beautiful friendship. After the critical attention and multiple Academy Award nominations garnered by Pride & Prejudice, the two teamed up again for Atonement in 2007, and then for Anna Karenina in 2012, as well as other smaller projects. “I think I owe my career to Keira, really,” Wright tells USA Today. (His next film, Darkest Hour, is out this November from Focus Features).
When the two aren’t making movies, they’re creating très chic ads for Chanel, including the James Bond-esqe spot “She’s Not There.” Knightley was made the official face of Chanel’s perfume Coco Mademoiselle in 2006, and the face of the fine jewelry collection, Coco Crush, in 2016.
“I have complete trust in his taste, which I can always count on," Knightley tells Du Jour. "A glance between us is all it takes to get a message across.” For Wright, Keira goes beyond being a muse to being a fierce collaborator. “Keira is quite fearless,” Wright tells the Los Angeles Times. “She encourages me to go to places I wouldn't necessarily be brave enough to go to myself."
Watch Pride & Prejudice now on iTunes.
Watch Atonement now on iTunes.
Watch Anna Karenina now on iTunes.
Watch Seeking a Friend for the End of the World now on iTunes.