Keira Knightley has had her fair share of roles over the years, even earning herself a couple of Oscar nods. But one thing has become clear over her years as an acclaimed actress: she has a particular affinity for period pieces. In fact, many of her most notable roles are from her performances in period films. Even Pirates of the Caribbean, the franchise that ultimately landed her to fame, is an 18th-century fantasy escapade. Knightley’s most recent work in Colette has her portraying the French novelist of the same name in the early 20th century. Here are some of Knightley’s most noteworthy performances in period pieces:
Pride and Prejudice (2005)
Perhaps the work that is most synonymous with Knightley as an actress, her portrayal of Elizabeth Bennet is what initially garnered her acclaim for her acting. The film was Joe Wright’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s famous 1813 novel, which follows the Bennet family, whose future depends on the successful (in other words, wealthy) marriages of the household’s five daughters. The film largely focuses on the perspective of Elizabeth (portrayed by Knightley), the second-eldest daughter of the household, who seemingly finds her own life consistently entangled with that of Mr. Darcy (Matthew Macfayden).
The film received four Academy Award nominations, including one for Best Actress for Knightley’s performance as Elizabeth (her performance was also nominated for a Golden Globe). Knightley’s performance was one of the most consistently praised aspects of the film, but appeared to be just the beginning of her experience with such roles. However, her performance in Pride and Prejudice is quite unforgettable and will likely always remain one of her most considerable roles.
Knightley also starred in Joe Wright’s Atonement, based on Ian McEwan’s novel of the same name. Knightley plays an upper-class woman named Cecilia, who begins to fall for a man named Robbie (James McAvoy) in the landscape of 1935 England. However, things become far more complicated when Cecilia’s younger sister, Briony (Saoirse Ronan) accuses Robbie of a crime, a fatal charge which ultimately sends him to prison.
This film gained plenty of awards attention for young Saoirse Ronan, but Knightley’s performance as the film’s female lead was highly regarded, as well. Knightley was originally slated to play 18-year-old Briony, but Knightley and Wright became uncertain which character the actress should play. In the end, it was decided that Knightley would play Cecilia due to the lack of resemblance to Pride and Prejudice’s Elizabeth Bennet, proving Knightley’s versatility as an actress.
Anna Karenina (2012)
Knightley and Wright must have been happy with the results of their previous collaborations, because the actress and director worked together once again on Wright’s 2012 adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s 1877 novel of the same name, with Knightley starring as the title character. The film follows the historical tragedy of Russian aristocrat Anna Karenina, whose affair ends ultimately ends up leading to her downfall.
The film was praised for certain aspects such as production and costume design, cinematography, and score, but was also criticized for its preference of style of substance. However, Knightley’s performance is also still a considerable aspect of this film, maintaining a nuance in her role as Karenina that makes her character somehow still sympathetic, despite her character quite often doing acts that make her generally unlikeable.
The Imitation Game (2014)
Another highly acclaimed performance for Knightley came out of her role in Morten Tyldum’s The Imitation Game as Joan Clarke, fellow codebreaker and close companion of Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch). Based on the Andrew Hodges’ biography of Turing, the film follows the life of Turing, a major figure in solving the Enigma code used by Nazi Germany in World War II, but was later prosecuted for his homosexuality.
Knightley was again nominated for an Academy Award and a Golden Globe for her performance, this time for Best Supporting Actress, in addition to the film’s other several accolades. Knightley’s performance is charming and compassionate, and could easily be considered one of her best performances to date.
Knightley’s latest addition to her repertoire is the newly-released Colette from director Wash Westmoreland, which premiered at Sundance earlier this year and, more recently, played at TIFF. The film is based on the life of early 20th century French novelist Colette, whose first four books were published under the name of her husband, Henry Gauthier-Villars (played by Dominic West). The film follows Colette throughout her life and career as she begins to come into her own as a woman and figures out what exactly she wants for herself.
There is a particularly moving monologue performed by Knightley at the end of the film that is Oscar-worthy in and of itself, but we have yet to see what kind of recognition she’ll receive for the role. Nevertheless, it is undoubtedly one of the strongest aspects of the film, and Knightley does a wonderful and delicate job unpacking Colette’s complex character development as she works to defy gender conventions and power dynamics.
These are only some of the period films that Keira Knightley has under her belt, but these are easily some of her most influential roles to date. We can only wait to find out what historical avenue Knightley will go down next, but it for certain will result in yet another marvelous performance.