The massive success of Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl (2003) transformed Keira Knightley from a little-known British actress to a figure worthy of glossy magazine covers and swooning admirers across the globe. Almost overnight the waifish tomboy with dark, smoldering looks and a wry, time-stopping smile was catapult into a stratosphere few actors ever realize. She was all of 18.
Two years later Knightley was nominated for an Oscar for her portrayal of Elizabeth Bennet in Joe Wright's remarkably effective adaptation of Pride & Prejudice. Her affecting, multidimensional performance confirmed that she wasn't just another pretty flavor of the moment but an actress of considerable abilities. And while the bloated Pirates sequels have been a critical washout, their box-office success has made her one of the most recognizable women in movies today.
Now comes Atonement, an ambitious adaptation of Ian McEwan's acclaimed novel about love and betrayal in World War II-era London. Knightley plays Cecilia Tallis, a haughty young woman who spends her days lazing about her wealthy family's lush, expansive estate. James McAvoy is Robbie Turner, the educated son of the Tallis' housekeeper whose long-simmering affection for Cecilia finally becomes mutual.
Things get complicated when Cecilia's 13-year-old sister Briony — an imaginative fledgling writer played with scary precision by newcomer Saoirse Ronan — misinterprets a steamy rendezvous between her older sister and Robbie.
Secrets and lies follow, leading to Robbie's banishment and eventual enlistment as a soldier in the British military. And that's just the first half of this epic story's haunting narrative.
Atonement finds Knightley again paired with Wright, a talented 35-year-old British director who seems to pull the best out of the still-young 22-year-old actress.
"Chemistry between actor and director is as rare as onscreen chemistry between actors," Knightley says while sitting with a group of journalists in London's Claridges hotel. "For some reason we have great creative chemistry together, and it's so exciting. When you're working with someone who is that passionate about what he does, you catch the passion, and that's what anybody working in a creative field wants. You want to give 100 percent whether it actually works out in the end or not — most of the time it doesn't — you want to feel that you've at least given your all to it."
Like most actors, Knightley comes off slightly diminished in person. Clad in a form-fitting gray sweater and black tights, her lithe frame is somehow even leaner than that of her screen visage.
Yet she radiates warmth. Her expletive-peppered, rapid-fire speaking voice and normal-girl demeanor belie her status as a sex symbol, a designation Knightley admits doesn't come naturally.
She also admits that her evolution as an actress is still in its early stages. Knightley relishes the ability to go from gigantic, effects-laden adventures like the Pirates series to more complex, emotionally engrossing projects like Atonement.
"I never want to be in the same type of film, the same type of character again and again and again. So doing Pirates and it being so big and action-packed and ridiculous and fun is wonderful. There's a place for that kind of fun movie, but to be able to go back to something like Atonement, and it to be about something very different, is fascinating. I'm very lucky to be able to do both."
Which brings us back to Wright and his unique talents as a director and collaborator.
"In a lot of ways, movie sets are not particularly creative spaces; they're very technical spaces," Knightley says. "And so actors who are really able to relax and who are able to bare their soul, it is really fucking impressive, because it's not easy.
"It's one of the reasons I love Joe (Wright) so much: He really carves out that creative space," she says. "He makes sure that the set, when the actors are there, is about finding the performance, and that is rare. Doing that in big-budget pieces is obviously very difficult. When I see really great performances in one of them it does kind of make me go, 'Fuck, well done.' "