The Keira Knightlification of Period Dramas


As a lover of period dramas, my youth was filled with captivating characters such as Emma Woodhouse, Cecilia Tails, Éponine Thénardier, and many more. Throughout the years, a recurring actress in many of my favorite films was Keira Knightley. Originating with Pirates of the Caribbean family movie nights, I have always enjoyed Keira Knightley’s historical films. As an actress, Knightley has brought her own style to many of the timeless characters that she has adapted. Her impact in the modern periodical classics era has been displayed through her repetitive appearances in the genre. In this article, I will do a run down on my top 4 four favorite Knightley films and how I believe she impacted them. 

Anna Karenina (2012) 

I first watched Anna Karenina in 7th grade after seeing that the cast list featured Matthew Macfadyen, Keira Knightley, and Aaron Taylor Johnson. Immediately, I fell in love with the story of Alexei Vronsky and Anna Karenina. This timeless classic has been adapted over fifteen times since 1911. The unique thing about this version of the movie is the theatrical setting that the director, Joe Wright, utilized. Instead of using regular settings, Joe Wright had the entirety of the film set in a theater that resembled the scenes as they changed. For example, the bustling streets of Russia were portrayed through the hectic environment of the backstage. The most jarring part of the film was Vronksy’s horse race taking place on the stage of the theater. This bold, creative choice has received loads of backlash from critics, but personally, I love the eccentricity that it brings to the film.

Anna Karenina was the third Joe Wright film that Keira Knightley had performed in. The portrayal that Wright and Knightley had in mind was a less romanticized version of the deeply flawed protagonist, Anna. To learn the role of Anna Karenina, Keira Knightley reread Tolstoy’s novel and annotated the themes that she hoped to highlight, such as violence, sexuality, and entrapment. In an interview with ELLE, Knightley states that the most shocking thing about Leo Tolstoy’s protagonist was that “there wasn’t anything [she] couldn’t relate to” in Anna. Keira Knightley’s portrayal highlights the lack of innocence and dishonesty in the character. This depiction stands apart as the most scandalous representation of Anna Karenina ever. 

Pirates of the Caribbean (2003-2017) 

The first movie in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise was one of Keira Knightley’s breakout movies. This movie shed a large amount of attention onto Keira and helped her score many of her roles today. While this attention did help to launch her career, fame also came with negative impacts on her mental health. When production began on the first movie in the series, Knightley was only seventeen years old. As a young actress, Keira did not desire the fame that came with the role of Elizabeth Swann, nor did she expect it. The first time I saw this movie franchise was long before I was aware of who Keira Knightley was and the impact she would have on some of my favorite films. When my sisters and I were younger, all of our favorite movies were centered around princesses and fairytales. Looking back, I would have expected some hesitation to watch Pirates of the Caribbean with my dad at the age of eight. However, my younger self viewed the character of Elizabeth Swann as a cooler version of a Disney princess. I was obsessed with the story of Will Turner, played by Orlando Bloom, and Elizabeth Swann. Upon leaving the franchise following the third installment, fans were devastated to lose the character that Keira Knightley created. Fortunately, Knightley made a cameo in the most recent film, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales. 

Atonement (2007) 

Atonement, starring James McAvoy, Saoirse Ronan, and Keira Knightley, is adapted from the 2001 war drama novel about the lasting effects of a falsely accused crime. In this movie, Keira Knightley plays the dazzling Cecelia Tails, alongside James McAvoy as Robbie Turner. I watched this film in 2019 after seeing Saoirse Ronan portraying my favorite character in Little Women: Jo March. I was entranced by her performance and decided to watch the movie that jump-started her career. If you’ve ever seen Atonement (or heard anything about it), you know about THE green dress!! This elegant, vibrant dress worn by Keira Knightley has been referred to as one of the most iconic movie costumes of the 21st century. Jacqueline Durran was the costume designer for Atonement and the talented artist who constructed this gown. The role of Cecelia in Atonement was a step out of Keira Knightley’s comfort zone. However, she was nominated for an Academy Award for her performance in this film. In my opinion, Knightley’s work in Atonement was one of her best performances yet. 

Pride & Prejudice (2005) 

Out of all the movies on this list, Pride and Prejudice is the one that I am the most fond of. The first time I watched this film was with my mom in 6th grade. Following this, I read the novel and watched as many other adaptations as I could get my hands on. After watching many different film adaptations of the novel, I always came back to Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen in this 2005 masterpiece. Cinematically this film is beautiful, but one of the main things that I love this movie for is the portrayals of Darcy and Lizzie. Being one of the more modern reimagining’s, the characters of Fitzwilliam Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet feel more relatable. I believed in their feelings and felt the emotions in their performances.

Personally, I do enjoy classicality, but the creative liberties that set this adaptation from the others are just as special to me. According to fans of the novel, Matthew and Keira were not the ideal actors for the casting. Keira Knightley was said to be too pretty for Lizzie and people felt as if Matthew Macfadyen was unable to meet the high bar set by Colin Firth in the 1995 BBC miniseries adaptation. Nevertheless, both of the actors succeeded in stealing the hearts of viewers all over the world. Gratefully, Keira Knightley brought many great additions to the Pride & Prejudice universe and other films throughout her life.