Love or loathe?

Sat, Sep 1, 2012, 01:00

The cynics may sneer at Keira Knightley in her latest, challenging role as Anna Karenina, but this much-maligned actor is far more accomplished than her many detractors believe, writes EILEEN BATTERSBY

WHY DO SO MANY dislike Keira Knightley? Is it her jaw? Her alleged pout? Her thinness? The cut glass Englishness that she can conjure at will? That defiant fragility? Her tidy alliteration? Her success? Her good looks?

Next week sees the release of Joe Wright’s film version of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina with Knightley playing its self-destructive central character. Cynics are already engaging in Keira-bashing. But why shouldn’t this much-maligned actor play her? Still only 27, she has already established that she can play unhappy, romantically susceptible naïve idealists of limited vision. Her performance in Saul Dibb’s lavish period drama The Duchess (2008) was very good and ultimately moving. Knightley, little more than 22 during shoot, more than held her own in the face of a superlative Ralph Fiennes as her monosyllabic husband. Fiennes was the best thing in it, yet Knightley dominated her scenes.

She is naturally photogenic and can morph from wan teenager to femme fatale in the space of a couple of frames. Her exotic beauty, most specifically her eyes, more yearling than femme fatale, guarantees her screen presence. But she is also emotionally responsive and conveys an edgy, rather neurotic intensity that is convincingly balanced by vulnerability. Maybe it’s the mother in me, and/or the horse owner, but in a world of injustices, Knightley, an intelligent, committed actor, is consistently underestimated. True period costumes suit her and, as mostly everyone discovers, the skinny girls who are waiflike in swimsuits tend to look great in clothes. Too many articles about her focus on her tiny body. As long ago as Gilles MacKinnon’s harrowing Pure (2002) the 17-year-old Knightley, playing a pregnant teenage heroin addict, was riveting.

She is far superior to, say, Scarlett Johansson and is far less annoying than Anne Hathaway. One Day might have been a bit more compelling had Knightley been cast instead of Hathaway.

If Knightley, a dyslexic, were to put on weight the famous jaw or at least its tautness, would disappear. Would her detractors then begin reflecting on her CV? She may well be slightly too young to play Anna Karenina, but as Elizabeth Bennet in Joe Wright’s Pride and Prejudice in 2005, she was close enough in age to Austen’s creation.

Mere weeks younger than Knightley, is the deeply irritating “I’m-always-just-about-to-burst- into-tears” Carey Mulligan who, coincidentally, made her movie debut as Kitty Bennet in that same film. Wright’s Pride and Prejudice daringly took on the 1995 BBC version featuring the glorious Darcyesque perfection of Colin Firth, and placed the hugely appealing Matthew MacFadyen who gazed, slightly bewilderingly, at the fury of Knightley’s Lizzie in the proposal scene set in the rain. Here again, one should admit that Knightley’s feisty, instinctive – albeit modern – and very stubborn Elizabeth Bennet was good enough to secure an Oscar nomination, losing out to Reese Witherspoon. No investigative energy was needed to suggest that Wright had found a muse. Knightley was predictably cast in Wright’s 2007 screen adaptation of Ian McEwan’s Atonement. Again, it is unfair not to concede that Knightley certainly articulated Cecilia’s resentment at her younger sister’s life-destroying lie.

When Kazuo Ishiguro’s prophetic novel Never Let Me Go (2005) made it to the screen in 2010 with mixed results, Mulligan, in the narrator’s role, was considered the lead although Knightley’s Ruth imposed herself on every scene she appeared in.

We know it all began in Gurinder Chanda’s Bend it Like Beckham (2002) with Keira as Juliette, the second lead doughty tomboy footballer – remember she was 17 – and she was the pretty love object in Richard Curtis’s Love Actually (2002) in which just about every living British actor took part. But few fully noticed her until she was rescued by Cap’n Jack Sparrow in the 2003 first and by far the best of The Pirates of the Caribbean high-seas spoofs.

Knightley, still a teenager, was Elizabeth Swann, the suitably lovely, reluctantly corseted daughter of the widower Governor played by Jonathan Pryce. Her part, at least initially, required little more than looking beautiful. As the sequels trudged on, a sense of humour was needed and Knightley confirmed she had that. She also showed that she had the wit to abandon ship after the third one. Most bizarrely of all, in the early scenes she and Johnny Depp achieved an unlikely spark of erotic frisson – you need to be alert, or you might miss it.

In John Maybury’s The Edge of Love (2008), written by her playwright mother, Knightley again played a noble slave to love, this time in the unruly form of Dylan Thomas.

But by far the biggest professional risk she has taken to date was her role as Sabina Spielrein in David Croenberg’s A Dangerous Method (2011). For the first part of the film she is a screaming madwoman, it is difficult to watch her grotesque mannerisms complete with tics but she grows on the viewer just as her character appears to engage her doctor, Jung. They become lovers: she is passionate, he is clinical. The real-life Spielrein evolved from damaged young woman to pioneering female psychoanalyst. She was later murdered by the Nazis.

Wright’s Anna Karenina opens next week. Of course there will be snipes about her fabulous costumes and the jaw. No doubt the casting of MacFadyen as the erring but lovable Oblonsky and the always underrated former pretty boy Jude Law will attract the most critical approval.

But Knightley will acquit herself well. In time, should there ever be a remake of Brief Encounter, a mature Knightley would be an inspired choice. She could also convince as both the early and later Julia in Brideshead Revisited. In the event of a new Doctor Zhivago she would be a likely Lara.

Exactly how good is Keira Knightley? Far better than her detractors are prepared to admit.

Anna Karenina opens next Friday

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