Knightly of the Caribbean
The first reviews are in on the eagerly awaited Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest , and it sounds like it delivers everything the fans were hoping for. Dead Man's Chest is the second instalment of three (the third was shot back to back, Lord of the Rings style, though it won't be released until next summer). But if the buzz is to be believed, don't rule out further adventures down the line because this series smacks of box office gold.
Nobody held out huge hopes for the first one - a movie based on a theme park ride just sounded too crass for words. But then when it finally arrived, here was that rare thing, a movie that actually surpassed expectations. Marrying spectacular action with an organic and original story, engaging characters and knockabout comedy, it managed to be frivolous in the best sense: fun. It also conspired to tick off all the right boxes, appealing pretty much equally to mums (Johnny Depp), dads (Keira Knightley), sons (Keira Knightley) and daughters (Orlando Bloom). Only the infants got a raw deal (Geoffrey Rush).
While Johnny Depp quite rightly hogs the limelight for his bravura turn as Jack Sparrow, don't underestimate the impact of a lead role in a $650 million blockbuster on Keira Knightley's career. She was already some sort of a name in Britain the year before courtesy of Bend It Like Beckham (2002). I remember seeing a preview of Gurinder Chadha's feminist footie film and telling my editor at Time Out magazine that we must do a feature on this teenage actress, she was going to be a big star… only he went with Parminder Nagra instead.
She followed that up with a small but telling part in Pure (sharing crack with a ten year old in a scene that somehow managed to be tender and moving) and then Lara in the TV Doctor Zhivago… which is when people really began to sit up and take notice. Could this beanpole be the new Julie Christie?
People forget that Julie Christie wasn't always " Julie Christie" - that mystique, depth and respect accrue with experience. An ingénue is only ever an ingénue until she's allowed to show her mettle. I've had a number of conversations - all with women, perhaps coincidentally - where I've found myself defending Knightley from detractors who complain (a) that she can't act and (b) that they don't like the look of her either.
I suspect that (b) is a stronger irritant for some people than (a). More than almost anyone, young actresses are judged on their looks, and with her pouty lips and anorexic figure, Knightley provokes strong reactions across the board. Throw in the posh southern elocution and watch the knives come out.
Is she an actress? Her costars in Joe Wright's forthcoming Atonement include Vanessa Redgrave, Emily Watson, Brenda Blethyn and Kristin Scott Thomas. So far, Oscar-nomination or not, Knightley has done nothing to call herself a peer of those talents - as she would be the first to admit. I think the only honest answer is time will tell, but for the moment she has enough screen presence to see her through. By which I mean a combination of natural ability, physical beauty, and what we can discern of her own character through the roles she plays and the image she presents in the media.
At 21, Knightley is barely entering her womanhood, and I don't doubt her performances will grow richer - not least because she has already shown the appetite for it. She can be winsome in a piece of fluff like Love, Actually, but she threw herself into the muddy King Arthur with obvious gusto, went out of her way to do The Jacket, and you have to admire the gumption of any actress who would jump straight from Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice to bounty hunter Domino Harvey in Domino without pausing for breath.
Even Knightley's forthright and refreshingly youthful Lizzie Bennett would probably draw the line at lap dancing for a drug addled crew of gang-bangers, but there are qualities in Domino that Jane Austen might have appreciated: a rebellious and independent spirit, self-belief, and a mean karate chop…
Of course the movie self destructed, but you can see what attracted Knightley to it: she wants to play up there with the big boys and escape the crinolene trophy roles which could so easily be her lot in life. Like Elizabeth Swann, she wants to be a pirate and sail the high seas - a noble ambition, surely, for a woman of any age.