Keira the conqueror
A ravishing actress's myriad charms blossom in Pride and Prejudice
It would be a mistake to get balled up trying to describe Keira Knightley's particular beauty. The dark, knowing eyes. The bold brows. And don't even think about the mouth. In a recent cover story in Esquire, beside a photo of the young British actress coolly revealing her right breast, a male writer knocked himself out trying to explain the thing she does with her mouth -- the way "her pout breaks into a precariously wide smile, retracts into what looks like a sob, and then somehow transforms into an adoring half laugh." Guess you had to be there. Yes, there is a thing she does with her mouth, but there's no describing it. It's an English thing -- the strong chin and the way she breaks her composure with a laugh that reveals her lower teeth. You see? There's no point. In trying to explain Hollywood's new It Girl, it's best to let the pictures do the talking -- and turn instead to Jane Austen.
No author has set a more enduring prototype for the modern, girl-powered romantic comedy than Jane. (Surely by now she deserves a one-name moniker, like Madonna and Cher.) We're not just talking about the movies based on her novels (Emma, Persuasion, Sense and Sensibility, Mansfield Park . . .), or those influenced by them (Clueless, Legally Blonde). Without Austen's 19th-century precedent, it's hard to imagine Sabrina's Audrey Hepburn, Sleepless in Seattle's Meg Ryan, Pretty Woman's Julia Roberts -- or Bend it Like Beckham's Keira Knightley.
In Beckham, a sports movie with Austen-like elements of misaligned romance and arranged marriage, Knightley didn't have the lead role. But as a scrawny, soccer-mad tomboy with a nimble London accent, she left a sharp impression. And even then, when she was just 16, her quick, darting intelligence could be summed up by the words Austen used to describe her most famous heroine, Elizabeth Bennet of Pride and Prejudice: "She had a lively, playful disposition, which delighted in anything ridiculous."
Now 20, this hardy English rose has blossomed with a string of eye-catching roles -- from the free-thinking damsel who had her corset shucked by Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean, to the gun-toting, lap-dancing, chain-smoking bounty hunter in Domino. As the damsel, she seemed constricted, not just by the corset, but by the Boys' Own shenanigans of the movie. And as the reckless Domino Harvey, it seems she was trying a little too hard to prove she could join the Angelina Jolie camp of butch vixens.
But now, in an exhilarating new version of Pride and Prejudice, Knightley has found her stride as Austen's Elizabeth. Despite her physical charms -- which make her somewhat overqualified to play a woman the author describes as "the second prettiest" of the five Bennet sisters -- Knightley inhabits the character as if to the Austen manor born. This is a star-making performance.
Playing a character who leads with her mind, not her looks, is no small feat for someone who looks like Knightley. Yet there's nothing prohibitive about her allure. "Keira is obviously incredibly beautiful," Joe Wright, the British director of Pride and Prejudice, told Maclean's. "But also she seems quite normal. It seems we all could know her somehow. Like Julia Roberts, she doesn't alienate us. She doesn't threaten men or women." Then, slowly choosing his words, as if to say this is not just a director hyping his movie, Wright adds: "I think she will develop into one of the most important movie stars of her era."
For someone so young, Knightley has already covered a lot of ground. If she has the range, the It Girl could indeed become a superstar. She has the dark-eyed smoulder of Natalie Portman, but is a gamine without the gravitas. More like a sultry Audrey Hepburn. Then there's that laugh, Keira's flash of complicity. It's the equivalent of Julia's smile, disarming and a bit ungainly -- the indiscretion of a pretty woman who hasn't altogether given up on being a kid.
But Wright initially feared Knightley might be too glam for Pride and Prejudice. "Originally I wanted someone plainer to play Elizabeth," he says. "Darcy is attracted to her for the liveliness of her mind rather than anything else." The director arranged to see her in Montreal, where she was shooting The Jacket. Late at night, after his flight was delayed by a snowstorm, he met her in a hotel bar. "I discovered this scruffy tomboy who didn't at all conform to the preconceptions I had of her," he recalls. "That struck me as quite interesting, that Keira, being a tomboy, wouldn't have fitted the feminine ideal of the period, of 1797, when women were expected to be a lot more demure and curvaceous. Then I discovered her to be incredibly opinionated. She doesn't say what she thinks you want to hear. All those characteristics were again perfect for Elizabeth."
This new Pride and Prejudice has scenes of lavish spectacle. At times it threatens to turn into a tour of English homes and landscapes, the Lake District for Dummies. But Wright, who claims an affinity for "English realism," disdains the "chocolate-boxy" feel of Merchant Ivory period films. Adopting an earthier tone than the 1995 British miniseries of Pride and Prejudice, he does breathe fresh life into Austen's characters. With Matthew Macfadyen as Lizzie's stern object of desire, Brenda Blethyn as her hectic mother and Donald Sutherland as her kindly father, Wright has assembled a rich ensemble -- crowned by an imperious Judi Dench as (dragon) Lady Catherine de Bourg. For the Bennet sisters, the 33-year-old director cast actors as young as Austen's characters (unlike the 1940 version with Laurence Olivier and Greer Garson, who were in their 30s). And his Bennet sisters tear through the movie with giddy, girlish abandon.
Knightley, who was 19 when she shot the movie, grounds that adolescent energy in a sensible confidence that makes her seem wise beyond her years. But then she has been acting professionally from the age of seven, and first requested an agent at three. Born in the London suburb of Teddington, she's the daughter of an actor father and playwright mother. Working to overcome a learning disability, Knightley took on various TV roles before scoring a part as Natalie Portman's decoy Padmé in Star Wars: Episode I -- The Phantom Menace (1999). After her breakthrough in Bend it Like Beckham, she landed a lead as Lara in a TV miniseries of Dr. Zhivago. The blockbuster success of Pirates of the Caribbean cemented her stardom, and now she's in the Caribbean shooting back-to-back sequels. With any luck, this time her character will end up with Johnny Depp, rather than Orlando Bloom, despite the age difference. Jane would approve.