A Unified Theory Of Keira Knightley

Knightley gets teased for playing versions of the same character, in different costumes. But her recurring role — negotiating femininity under patriarchal control — is one so many women recognize as our own.

Colette, the new film about the life of famed French author Gabrielle Colette, resembles so many other historical biopics of men and women with expansive personal lives and achievements: It’s gorgeously costumed, transporting in its set design, and struggles to find a suitable, sensical ending. But it has something else to recommend it that will make many people I know see it, regardless of reviews: Keira Knightley, jaw firm as ever, very convincingly playing the part of a woman from another century.

Knightley is sometimes accused of playing the same historical role over and over again — an accusation that relies on the belief that Anna Karenina and Elizabeth Bennet and the Duchess of Devonshire and Cecilia Tallis and Colette are the same person, simply because they are dressed in period clothing. Of course, they’re not. Yet they are unified by Knightley’s embodiment of them, as well as the larger idea she represents: that of women ostensibly performing a version of proper womanhood — all while quietly negotiating, or cracking under, the weight of doing so.

Colette offers Knightley’s least quiet, most bombastic negotiation of proper womanhood to date. For years, Colette writes under her husband’s pseudonym, allowing him to take all the glory for books that were the toast of France. But she comes to reject his exploitation — and his philandering, and his expectations of what a woman of society should and should not do — in a way that feels improbably brave. It is a beautiful, nuanced performance in a film that realizes Knightley is by far the most interesting part of it, often at the expense of the narrative whole. But as with so many movies featuring true movie stars, the quality of the film as a whole feels beside the point. It’s Knightley, and what her very presence has come to mean as she has performed so many variations on the theme of historical femininity, that’s worth watching.

The first time I noticed Keira Knightley was with her shirt off, playing a teenage soccer star in Bend It Like Beckham (2002). The way she looked in a sports bra, or in the small piece of tablecloth artfully draped around her body in what we then called a “going-out top,” represented the early 2000s ideal: not an ounce of fat on her. And her skinniness, or slenderness, or litheness, as it was variously termed, coupled with her middle-posh British accent, became — along with her distinctive pout — two of her distinguishing characteristics. Both made her particularly amenable to casting as a kind of refined human clothes hanger in historical epics over the course of the 2000s: King Arthur, Pirates of the Caribbean, Pride & Prejudice, a billion more Pirates of the Caribbeans, The Edge of Love, Atonement, Silk, and The Duchess.

And it was those films — rather than the aberration of Love Actually (2003), or the misfire of Domino, which cut her hair into a shaggy pixie, or the overwrought mindfuck of The Jacket (both released in 2005) — that established the foundation of her image, as an actor who seemed most at home in decades other than our own.

This understanding of Knightley was made possible, at least in part, by her own fiercely maintained privacy. She dated her Pride & Prejudice costar Rupert Friend for years, but little was known of their relationship, apart from the fact that the paparazzi liked to take pictures of them on the beach together. She regularly appeared in fashion shoots, but in the interviews inside the magazine, she rarely disclosed substantive details of her offscreen life.

This sort of information vacuum made it all the easier to believe that Knightley sits around at home not dressed like her Love Actually character, but getting her hair done up into a meticulous pile of ringlets by a lady’s maid, or walking the English countryside, or wearing a full-body bathing costume as she prepares to dive into the pond at her ancestral estate. She didn’t exercise, she didn’t diet, and successfully sued the publication that alleged she had an eating disorder. Unlike contemporary stars like Jennifer Lawrence, whose carefree, cool girl femininity feels so incredibly of this moment that it makes her seem woefully out of place in a period drama like Serena (2014), Knightley has always felt on some level outside of contemporary ideology, unwilling to heed the demands put upon her peers. Even the ads she did for Chanel, some set in the past, others set in rarified worlds foreign to ours, made it seem like she was breathing different air than the rest of us.

In all of Knightley’s historical films, she is at the center. She is not relegated to the role of love interest; men are.

The roles Knightley has chosen since — playing the tragic heroine of Anna Karenina (2012), a turn-of-the-century psychological patient in A Dangerous Method (2011), and now a turn-of-the-century French writer in Colette — have only emphasized that perception of her. In an interview with Variety ahead of Colette’s screening at Sundance last January, Knightley was asked why she gravitated toward historical roles. Just looking at her filmography, it’s not difficult to guess: The vast majority of contemporary roles she has been offered have been underwritten (Laggies, 2014) or secondary (Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, 2014) or uncomplicated (Begin Again, 2013).

Knightley answered the question with unanticipated frankness: “I don’t really do films set in the modern day because the female characters nearly always get raped,” she said. “I always find something distasteful in the way women are portrayed, whereas I’ve always found very inspiring characters offered to me in historical places.”

Of course, those historical roles aren’t without violence, sexual, emotional, or otherwise; one of the most harrowing scenes of Knightley’s entire oeuvre involves a sexual assault in The Duchess. But the violence committed against them is not their defining characteristic; their resilience is. In all of Knightley’s historical films, she is at the center. She is not relegated to the role of love interest; men are. Romances, marriages, children, and dalliances are all secondary to her own development — as a woman, but also as the protagonist in her own life story, no matter how tragic it may become.

The complaint most people seem to have about Keira Knightley has to do with her chin: its prominence, its acting ability, its annoying habit of just existing. What one does with one’s face is generally considered part of acting, but some audiences seem to object to what Knightley does with hers. Much like Claire Danes, with her famous cry face, Knightley does something that female stars aren’t supposed to: She allows her face to move, to transform, to become unbecoming.

On magazine covers, Knightley’s chin rarely juts forward, the way that seems to annoy people so intensely. It’s more often tucked or shot in a way that makes her look demure, slightly less angular — less, well, obtrusive. But onscreen, Knightley’s chin becomes one of her most dynamic features. It takes a particular position when she is being coy or cunning. When she’s savaging someone, her jaw moves forward in a fierce underbite. When she’s enraged, she charges with it.

What one does with one’s face is generally considered part of acting, but some audiences seem to object to what Knightley does with hers.

That chin is arguably what distinguishes Knightley from her peers — fine-boned actresses like Natalie Portman, so ostensibly similar that Knightley was cast as Portman's body double in Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace (1999), or Carey Mulligan, who’s played her sister and her best friend. And while people do compare Knightley to other contemporary brunette, gamine stars, the more natural comparison (for someone whose roles so often place her many decades, if not centuries, in the past) may be to old Hollywood stars.

There’s a certain resonance between Katharine Hepburn and Knightley: They share the same controversial jaw and angularity; they are both adept at delivering clipped, assured dialogue. Others call Knightley an Audrey Hepburn knockoff; someone recently joked to me that their favorite Knightley performance was in the 1954 version of Sabrina. That argument works for her contemporary roles, which are largely flat and derivative, but not the historical ones. Hepburn was famously gamine (in fact, she was first discovered and handpicked by none other than the real-life Colette to make her 1951 Broadway debut in Gigi), but Knightley’s most indelible characters perform feminine delicacy, break down its machinery, demonstrate just how effective it can be — but also how useless it ultimately becomes when it’s your only weapon.

When I look at Knightley’s face, the person I’m most reminded of is less obvious: Greta Garbo. Knightley’s face is more traditionally feminine than Garbo’s, but the fascination of both is that the audience is at first too distracted by their ostensible beauty to notice the complication beneath. You can only see what you are willing to see: If you can’t understand why a wealthy, beautiful, and exquisitely dressed woman might be miserable, then that complication will remain hidden.

In his canonical essay “The Face of Garbo,” theorist Roland Barthes argued that Garbo’s face did not read like a face at all, but almost like a mask, an essence, something perfected above and sent down to earth — a sharp contrast to Audrey Hepburn, who, at the time of Barthes’ writing, had recently become a star, and who looked so unique, so irreplaceable, in contrast with the stars who’d come before her. What Barthes, a practitioner of semiotics, seemed to admire most about Garbo wasn’t that she was some divine angel who’d deigned to bless audiences with her presence, but that her face invited interpretation and elaboration. It was unfixed, a blank canvas: “The face of Garbo is an Idea,” he wrote, “that of Hepburn an Event.”

Her best performances show how even the most perfectly assembled performance of femininity can shatter, disassembling itself and others.

The same, I think, holds true for Knightley and her meaning. Through her historical performances, she’s become an idea. Her best performances show how even the most perfectly assembled performance of femininity can shatter, disassembling itself and others. The Idea of Knightley, then, is the beautiful, periodically blissful, yet ultimately tragic and timeless slog of living under a patriarchy.

It’s significant that so few of Knightley’s historical heroines to date achieve what can properly be called a happy ending. Pride & Prejudice stops, like the vast majority of romances, at the height of the romantic swoon. Give Lizzy and Darcy a decade, and who’s to say their marriage won’t disintegrate like so many in the Knightley historical oeuvre, in which a woman is selected for her beauty by a partner who eventually becomes dismayed by the force of her intelligence, her desire for more than what he and the domestic sphere have to offer. Even Colette’s eventual triumph — her emancipation from Henry, her success as a writer under her own name — doesn’t happen onscreen, but in the oddly truncated end credits of the film.

When negotiating the boundaries of a beautiful life under patriarchy, that’s when Knightley’s chin acting becomes most prominent. We see it when Lizzy low-key negs Darcy at Bingley’s ball and then walks down the length of the room, so pleased with herself, her chin tucked in with glee; when, in Atonement, Cecilia strips to her slip and jumps into the fountain to retrieve a shard of vase, overcome with the desire for Robbie that will eventually doom her, and emerges, dripping wet, chin quivering in fury at how that desire has wrecked her; when Georgiana hands over her daughter to her lover’s father in the middle of a field in The Duchess; when Colette first dons a suit in front of Henry. These moments portray the small wins and tremendous losses of negotiating womanhood — and they move me, reliably and repeatedly, beyond measure. They are so distant, in time and geography, from my lived experience. And yet the core of those moments, the larger idea that animates Knightley within them, is not.

Knightley has admitted that she’s felt “quite guilty — like it was something that I should try to shake off” about playing historical roles. “Then I realized that these were the films I’ve always loved watching,” she told Variety. “I think some people find escapism through science fiction or fantasy, and I suppose my escapism into another world has always been through period drama. It’s nice that in my 30s I can finally admit that.”

I, too, have come to terms with my love for period drama, especially Knightley’s. It is escapism, but of a different variety: to a place where women are the center of the narrative, and where the realities of living as an ambitious woman in a society still very much frightened of them aren’t papered over, but explored with great delight and dismay. I like the elaborate period costumes as much as anyone else, but I’m most drawn to these narratives’ refraction of the realities of our current world — its enduring obsessions with class, and propriety, and women’s performance of both — in a way that feels so much more honest and real than the vast majority of contemporary Hollywood. Yes, Keira Knightley plays variations of the same role over and over again. But that role, that fight against and periodic capitulation to a patriarchal society — it’s one so many women, myself included, recognize as our own. ●


Elizabeth Bennet's nickname was misspelled in an earlier version of this post.


Keira Knightley did not have an American accent in Domino. An earlier version of this piece said she did.

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