Why oh why is Keira Knightley the early 21st-century “It Girl” for period dramas? I don’t get it. She’s tall and lanky with big eyes, all of which is fine in a modern setting. But so often, in historical costumes, she looks off, just not quite right. Is it the costume designers’ fault? Or is it her? Considering she’s been in films with some highly skilled designers, I think it’s more about her. And it often goes beyond her mere appearance — she’s renown for clomping around when wearing otherwise elegant period gowns, as if she was wearing yoga pants and Uggs. She’s not delicate or refined if the character or period requires it. Knightley is a very modern gal, no matter what era the movie role she’s playing. I have to say, I loved her in Bend It Like Beckham (totally modern and that worked great for her), and it’s all been downhill since.
So let’s take a look at Keira Knightley historical costume movies and how badly Keira fits into the historical era.
Oliver Twist (1999)
Keira Knightley’s Role: Rose Maylie (Fleming)
Historical Period: 1830s
The Damage Done: Minimal. This ITV production was her first real costume drama role, and you may have seen it on PBS’ Masterpiece Theater (the same year as the far more popular Wives and Daughters). Knightley didn’t have a huge part, I don’t remember much about her, so clearly she didn’t make a terrible impact. This is the one pass she gets.
Princess of Thieves (2001)
Keira Knightley’s Role: Gwyn
Historical Period: 1199 / fantasy
The Damage Done: Bad. This was a made-for-TV movie, part of the Wonderful World of Disney show, and damn, I wish I’d seen it! Keira plays Robin Hood and Marian’s daughter, taking up the family trade at the time of King Richard the Lionheart’s death. The pix look super dork-tastic! Oh my, how this sets the tone for her future work.
Doctor Zhivago (2002)
Keira Knightley’s Role: Lara
Historical Period: About 1910-1920, before and after the Russian Revolution of 1917
The Damage Done: Bad. Another ITV miniseries that aired on Masterpiece Theatre a year later. A key point in Zhivago, the novel and any screen adaption, is that Lara is irresistible to three men, and the story revolves around their fascination with her. Can you see the problem here? Keira = not irresistible, not fascinating. Her acting is flat throughout the whole series. Plus, her costumes are mostly boring peasant dresses, saggy coats, and nurse uniforms. Her hair hangs long and loose much of the time, and hello, it’s the 1910s and 1920s, and you’re a grown-ass woman! Put your hair up, lady.
Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003)
Keira Knightley’s Role: Elizabeth Swann
Historical Period: Mid-18th century / fantasy
The Damage Done: Moderate. Yeah, it’s based on a Disney theme park ride and is a high-fantasy version of historical pirates. But most of Keira’s costumes are trying hard to be 1760s-1780s fashions, this is her first shot at them, and she.just.can’t. Yeah, yeah, Elizabeth is supposed to be rebellious ‘n all, but she’s still a woman in the 18th century, FFS. She’d know how wearing a corset feels eyeroll. Same grade applies for the two sequels.
King Arthur (2004)
Keira Knightley’s Role: Guinevere
Historical Period: 467 C.E.
The Damage Done: Major. Partly, it’s due to the story, partly it’s due to her (that’s a running theme; she sure knows how to pick ’em!). This is not the absolute worst movie retelling of the Arthurian legends, but it’s in my top five. Keira plays a Celtic warrior version of Guinevere that has so little to do with either history OR Arthurian legend that I wanted to hurl things at the screen when she appeared. Not that the first part with Arthur as a Roman general didn’t irritate the hell out of me already.
Pride & Prejudice (2005)
Keira Knightley’s Role: Elizabeth Bennet
Historical Period: 1790s-ish
The Damage Done: Catastrophic. THIS IS WHY WE CAN’T HAVE NICE THINGS. This production obviously fails in comparison to the One True P&P circa 1995, but more importantly, Keira can’t manage the subtleties needed for Lizzie’s genteel wit as written by Austen. The screenplay doesn’t help (it’s a weak adaption, IMO). Also, clomping! Really adds to the piggy factor. If you enjoy Jane Austen, avoid this one unless as a drinking game. Wait for more about this epic suckage later today.
Keira Knightley’s Role: Hélène Joncour
Historical Period: 1860s-1870s
The Damage Done: Major. Haven’t seen it, but whoa, this flick gets all-around awful reviews! Our Keira plays the jilted wife of a French silkworm trader. Go Keira, go!
Keira Knightley’s Role: Cecilia Tallis
Historical Period: 1930s
The Damage Done: None? It’s the 20th century, Keira doesn’t look as out of place. I’ll let her have one modest win.
The Edge of Love (2008)
Keira Knightley’s Role: Vera Phillips
Historical Period: World War II
The Damage Done: Moderate. I haven’t seen it and am afraid to because Keira Knightley actually sings as nightclub singer Phillips. Eeeek!!! Even though this has a 20th-century setting, I’m not convinced that Ms. Knightley looks quite the part here, she seems a bit too modern and affected.
The Duchess (2008)
Keira Knightley’s Role: Georgiana Cavendish
Historical Period: About 1770s to 1790s.
The Damage Done: Moderate to major. It’s a gorgeous movie with stunning costumes. But it’s still Clompy Keira, bull-in-a-china shop all over. Having read a few biographies of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, I know she’s a complicated woman who made some tragic mistakes but was also amazingly popular. It’s really, really hard to tell if the screenplay doesn’t carry these concepts through or the star isn’t up to the task. Just turn the sound off and look at the pretty pictures.
A Dangerous Method (2011)
Keira Knightley’s Role: Sabina Spielrein
Historical Period: Right before World War I
The Damage Done: Moderate. Haven’t seen it, but it’s telling that one review notes: “The best scenes are those between Mortensen and Fassbender,” as Freud and Jung. Nada about our miss.
Anna Karenina (2012)
Keira Knightley’s Role: Anna Karenina
Historical Period: 1870s
The Damage Done: Major. This is a love it or hate it movie, costume-wise. I fully admit, I’ve only skimmed through it because, jayzuz people!, is this Victorian Russia or is this “throw crap we bought at the mall on top of fancy prom dresses”??? Some call it “stylized,” but when I say that about Reign, you get twitchy. DOUBLE-STANDARD, much? Bonus, here we get more Clompy Keira action.
The Imitation Game (2014)
Keira Knightley’s Role: Joan Clarke
Historical Period: World War II
The Damage Done: Can’t tell! It’s still in theaters, and I’ll wait until cable or streaming. Preliminary pictures look ok, y’know, it’s 20th century, so she’s not horribly out of her element.
How do you rate Keira Knightley historical costume movies? Are you a fan or do you love to hate them?