In defence of Keira Knightley

Decades of tabloid scrutiny have warped our understanding of her skills as an actor and celebrity. But now social media is helping to usher in a new era of Keira.

by Louis Staples
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19 March 2021, 8:00am

For the past two decades, through umpteen tabloid reckonings, Keira Knightley -- she of Pirates of the Caribbean, Bend It Like Beckham and every period drama fame -- has been the subject of ample public scrutiny for seemingly no reason whatsoever. In 2014, a movie blogger at Metro penned a feature titled “6 times Keira Knightley was the most annoying actress ever”. On the very normal forum Mumsnet, she’s called a “really annoying”, “really wooden” actor who only gets work because she’s “as thin as an ironing board”. In a now-infamous column in The Guardian, stretching as far back as 2008, by which point she had been nominated for two Golden Globes and an Oscar, one journalist wrote: “Hatred of Keira is like menstruation; all women share it,” which is offensive not just to Keira, but to women who don’t menstruate.

There is, it seems, fun to be had in tearing down Keira Knightley, but no one has quite gotten to grips with why that may be. Some hypothesise it could be her “pout”; other Guardian journalists theorise it might be “the accent thing” or “the jaw thing”, her astute British enunciation in period dramas and bone structure to blame for why everybody seems to enjoy criticising her.

It’s easy to assume, perhaps due to the endless array of aristocratic roles that she plays, that she stems from such a background herself. But while her upbringing reads as comfortable on paper (she’s the daughter of an actor and a playwright), her school life seemed fairly run-of-the-mill. As Philippa Snow wrote in her piece for i-DHow Keira Knightley reminds me of Sylvia Plath”: “Looking for an answer as to why the actress was disliked enough to have developed goddamned PTSD from ill-treatment by the media and the general public is not so straightforward.”

The simple fact of the matter is that she has made an indelible mark on pop culture and a major contribution British cinema, regardless of such treatment. She has carved a career and an outspoken public image many choose to ignore, that deserves our respect. It’s time, we think, for the Keira Knightley renaissance.

After all, did wigs and football even exist before Keira made them the iconic talismans of her illustrious career? It’s hard to tell. It could be argued that no one has made period dramas their “thing” quite like she has. In 2018 she explained to The Guardian that she liked period films because “… it’s such an overt cage you put the woman in. That’s always something I’ve really identified with”, consciously mirroring the way that very same outlet had discussed her life and work up to that point. She has appeared in 16 period dramas since 1993, often as the lead. The likes of Atonement (2007), The Duchess (2008), Anna Karenina (2012) and more recently queer biopic Collette (2018) being particular highlights, while she earned Oscar nominations for Pride & Prejudice (2005) and the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game (2014). Whatever the time period, be it the Victorian era or post-World War Two, Keira has historically transported us there with ease: just give her a wig, a corset and an unrequited love interest.

Film critic Tim Robey, who interviewed her in 2014, says that Keira’s success in this genre is down to the “winking way” she transports us into different eras. “There's something quite mischievous about the way she plays period -- it's done with a sly awareness of the code switches,” he says. “She has fun with accents and costumes, rather than seeming trapped inside them.”

Of course Keira didn’t invent the period drama. But her legacy of selling female-fronted films to a mass audience has influenced the type of stories that get made now. As Marlow Stern, senior entertainment editor at The Daily Beast, observed: “Keira Knightley's performance in Pride and Prejudice was so powerful that casting directors have been looking for a ‘Keira Knightley-type’ in costume dramas ever since”. Stern highlighted Bridgerton’s Daphne (Phoebe Dynevor) and Greta Gerwig’s remake of Little Women as following in Pride & Prejudice’s footsteps. It doesn’t seem like a huge leap to link Game of Thrones’s quietly furious Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) to Keira’s legacy either.

It’s easy to forget that Keira was just 16 when she had her breakout role in Bend it Like Beckham. Her many years of success, which came to her when she was still so young, disguise the fact that she’s still just 35 years old -- four years younger than the perpetually infantilised and similarly (albeit more viciously) maligned Britney Spears. Being world famous in the noughties meant that Keira experienced a particularly brutal version of stardom, where tearing young women down and bullying them was the norm in tabloid media.

Like many famous women of that era, from Britney to Amy Winehouse to fellow oft-hated actor Anne Hathaway, every part of her appearance and personality was scrutinised and ridiculed. From the tabloids to the right-wing and even supposedly liberal press, dunking on her was a sport everyone participated in.

When Keira voiced concerns about some of the downsides of being constantly followed by paparazzi in 2008, Piers Morgan accused her of “moaning” because “being famous is great”. Months later, scrutiny over her weight in particular got so bad that her mother publicly begged the media to leave her alone. The actor would later reveal that constantly being stalked by photographers gave her a “breakdown”, leading to that aforementioned PTSD and panic attacks, forcing her to take a year off work.

Now that paparazzi scrutiny has been replaced, in part, by the omnipresence of social media, where Keira Knightley has had an unexpected pop-culture moment once again. Actor and writer Luke Millington-Drake, a self-confessed Keira superfan, recently went viral on TikTok and Instagram for his hilarious, uncannily accurate impressions of the actor living her “day-to-day life” and doing things like frolicking in the park in the most campy Keira Knightley way possible. But although celebrity impressions are a medium that easily lend themselves to ridicule, Luke’s Keiraisms are more affectionate than vicious.

He feels particularly connected to her, Luke explains, because of her past, as a derided subject of tabloid media. “She was a part of that era where she was mistreated and the press went after her for everything she did, said or wore,” he says. “I just can't imagine coming of age under the spotlight that she was under.  But she still gave us iconic performances that we still revisit over and over. I do feel very protective. I try to make all of my impression videos of her incredibly positive, [and] from a point of view that celebrates her.”

If the professional renaissance we predict is coming, it will have been preceded by a meme renaissance, partly thanks to Luke. The pivotal “They’re all of me” scene in Love, Actually -- a role she rarely gets credit for, despite being one of the most memorable characters in a cast of about 5000 others -- is regularly given the meme treatment, ensuring that none of us can forget the actor’s iconic performance in the Richard Curtis Christmas classic, even if we wanted to (we don’t).

It’s the very thing she was previously persecuted for — seemingly hyper-serious, exaggerated mannerisms and poshness — in these roles which make Keira the perfect candidate for memeification. Recontextualising her work to make a silly joke or an internet meme leans into the mischievousness that Tim describes. Lurking just beneath her polished demeanour, there is the sense that she’s “in on the joke”, these memes cementing her place in the pop culture lexicon.

“It wasn't until I started doing the impression that I realised how much of an impression she made on me,” Luke adds. “As a gay boy, she impacted my life massively. I definitely used her work and her films as a form of escapism as a child, because I was just so fascinated by her. She's a big part of what I wanted to be an actor when I grew up.”

It’s certainly not unusual for famous women who have been put through hell in the spotlight to become icons to gay men. From Britney Spears to Judy Garland (the ultimate gay icon), there’s a particular gay affection for “survivor” women who became famous at a young age. This isn’t just Keira’s personal story. As she has said herself: “almost every character I’ve played has tried to break out of that image of femininity.”

The starring roles of Keira’s mid-noughties peak feel like they arrive less often than they used to. Yet recent roles like British comedy Misbehaviour (2020) and Official Secrets (2019) -- a film based on the life of whistle-blower Katharine Gun who leaked a memo exposing an illegal spying operation that paved the way for the Iraq War -- show us that she’s comfortable veering out of the genre she’s become synonymous with.

Robey thinks that a second act -- like the triumphant returns of Renee Zellweger and Nicole Kidman -- could be on the cards for Keira. It might see her branch out from film, too. “I wouldn't be surprised if she goes down a similar TV route to Reese Witherspoon and also produces,” he says. “I still think there are classic roles she can play and I'm sure she'll have a go at. She'd be an interesting Hedda Gabler on the stage.” Film-wise, Robey feels that horror is an under-explored genre for the actor too. “I can see her playing like a cunning murderess in a remake of The Letter, or a Victorian governess type part, like Kidman in The Others. I think she has the versatility for a long career. I might not have said that 10 years ago, but she's really become interesting.”

A new Keira-era could be coming any moment now, and hopefully this time we can give her the appreciation she deserves. Because from festive rom-coms to blockbusters, Keira Knightley can do it all. We look forward to watching her continue to quietly prove her haters wrong -- with that pout on her face.

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