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Keira Knightley - Biography

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Keira Knightley

Personal details

Name: Keira Knightley
Born: 22 March 1985 (Age: 30)
Where: London, England
Height: 5' 7"
Awards: Nominated for 1 Oscar, 1 BAFTA and 1 Golden Globe

All about this star


Few actresses enjoy the kind of success Keira Knightley saw back in 2003. First, her major picture starring debut, Pirates Of The Caribbean, entered the all-time Top 20 of box-office hits. Then, due to this success, her earlier low-budget effort, Bend It Like Beckham, already a cult smash, found its release widened dramatically, taking it into undreamed of profit. Following these with Love, Actually, the latest emotional bludgeon from Richard “Notting Hill” Curtis, Knightley's rise in a few short months would be nothing short of phenomenal. And still she was only 18. Within a further three years she'd be Oscar-nominated and one of the most sought-after screen actresses in the world.

Yet, despite her tender years, Knightley already had a fair amount of working experience. Like such American actresses as Kirsten Dunst and Julia Stiles, she had begun her career at a very early age. Unlike them, though, she had not done so through the actions of pushy parents. Knightley’s focus was all her own, and had first become apparent at the absurdly young age of 3.

She was born Kiera Knightley on the 22nd of March, 1985, in Teddington, south-west London. Her name would become Keira as her Hollywood career took off, the change shamelessly breaking the golden rule of “I before E except after C” but making the name more easily pronounceable on a worldwide basis. Her father was stage actor Will Knightley, who’d make the occasional foray into television, such as starring as Mr Glegg in the BBC’s 1997 production of The Mill On The Floss. Her Ayrshire-born mother, Sharman Macdonald, had also been a stage and TV actress (she once appeared in Shoestring). Having joined the Drama Society at Edinburgh University in 1972, then worked as a go-go dancer to pay her drama school fees, she’d battled against stage fright for 12 years. Eventually, pregnant with Keira and having borne son Caleb five years earlier (he’d go on to teach music to underprivileged kids), in 1984 she gave up acting and concentrated on her family.

She also took up a career in playwriting and, after debuting with When I Was A Girl I Used To Scream And Shout, she proceeded to deliver such notable efforts as After Juliet, All Things Nice, The Brave, Sea Urchins, Shades and The Winter Guest, the last being taken to the big screen by Alan Rickman. On top of this, she’d write Wild Flowers and The Music Practice for TV, and a BBC documentary would be made about her, called Mindscape and featuring the young Keira.

Most kids like to join in with whatever their parents are up to, and Keira was no exception. At the age of 3, noticing that both Will and Sharman were getting regular calls from their respective agents, the young girl demanded one of her own. She was, of course, politely refused, but was insistent in her requests for the next several years. By the time she was 6, her mother struck a bargain with her. As the child had recently been diagnosed as dyslexic, she said that if Keira came to her every day of the summer holidays and spent an hour working on her reading and maths, she would provide her with professional representation. This challenge was important. Up until this point Keira had been ridiculed by her schoolmates for her supposed stupidity. In fact, her dyslexia meant she couldn’t read words and wrote numbers backwards. It got so bad that she’d get hold of book-tapes and memorise them so that no one would recognise her failings.

To Sharman’s surprise, the child complied and then forced her mother to keep to the bargain. And, to mum’s horror, the new agent did his work well. At age 7 Keira filmed her TV debut, Royal Celebration, concerning the complicated lives and loves in a London square at the time of Prince Charles’ marriage to Diana Spencer and featuring Kenneth Cranham, Minnie Driver and Rupert Graves.  At one stage, young Keira and her older buddies would slip away to watch the wedding on TV, being thrilled by the married couple's brief kiss then shocked by the site of a couple kissing in the crowd, someone they know, someone who shouldn't be kissing who they're kissing.

Fearing their daughter would begin to neglect her schoolwork - a potential disaster for a dyslexic - Keira’s parents told her she could only pursue her new career during the summer holidays. So, throughout the mid-Nineties, she did just that. 1994 brought a minor role in Joanna Trollope’s controversial drama A Village Affair, featuring a lesbian relationship between Sophie Ward and Kerry Fox. Yet again Keira found herself amidst a heavy-duty cast, including Claire Bloom and Jeremy Northam. 

1995 brought Innocent Lies, set in 1938, where an aristocratic family in a small seaside town are suspected of complicity in a murder. Joanna Lumley played the Nazi-supporting matriarch, while daughter Gabrielle Anwar and son Stephen Dorff hid some terrible secret - Keira playing the young Anwar in flashback. There'd also be an appearance in the long-running cop show The Bill where Knightley would play a tearaway fleeing but then caught by two policemen. Naturally they patronize her caustically as they search her bag for stolen goods, her repeated defence being "It ain't mine". The next year saw another period drama in E. Nesbit’s Treasure Seekers where a poor widowered inventor worked on a breakthrough in refrigeration while his five kids tried to help - Keira playing The Princess, a neat presaging of what was soon to come. This time her lofty co-stars included James Wilby, Gina McKee and Ian Richardson. She'd also pop up in her mother's The Music Practice, part of the Sound on Film series, and the aforementioned documentary Mindscape.

Meanwhile, Keira’s education continued at Teddington School, a classy and well-funded establishment thats grounds extended to the banks of the Thames, where it had its own slipway for launching boats. With 10 science laboratories, a TV studio and a Music and Drama block it offered great opportunities, though Knightley would never appear in school plays, of course having far more important dramatic fish to fry. Through her early teens she'd make the most of her spare time, attending drama workshops at the nearby Heatham House Youth Centre. This was an extremely forward-looking club, established some 50 years before, where artists, musicians, dramatists and youth workers would teach kids such fun subjects as photography, football, DJing, breakdancing, skateboarding and acting. This was where Keira would gain most of her early acting experience. And, remember, for her this was a normal situation. Unlike the millions who seek instant celebrity by banging out soul-less karaoke on The X Factor or scoring a part on some wretched soap-opera, Knightley did not equate acting with fame or big bucks. Due to her parents’ efforts and lifestyle, she saw it simply as a job that needed to be learned.

Come 1998, it was back to period drama with Rosamund Pilcher’s TV epic Coming Home. This saw Keira (who was “Introduced” in the credits) as Judith Dunbar, a quiet girl sent to an English boarding school by her parents in the colonies in the 1930s. Here she’s befriended by a rich girl and eventually, due to tragedy in the family, taken in by the girl’s folks, the movie following the lives of the two girls as they suffer class divisions and WW2. The older Judith would be played by Emily Mortimer, who’d fall for her friend’s brother Paul Bettany, the cast also featuring Peter O’Toole and, once again, Joanna Lumley.

While still at Teddington School, Knightley received a most extraordinary offer - to play a handmaiden of Natalie Portman’s Queen Amidala in the forthcoming The Phantom Menace, part one of the Star Wars saga and perhaps the most hotly anticipated movie in history. In fact, as the plot required her to dress as Portman and thus act as a decoy, she would, to all intents and purposes, be appearing as Queen Amidala. Trouble was, with George Lucas keeping his cards so close to his chest, this plot-twist, and thus Keira’s presence in the movie, was kept absolutely secret. She was, therefore, perhaps the only actress to play a prime role in one of the biggest hits ever and not have her career boosted as a result..

As said, fame was not really the point for Keira, and her next role would take her back home when she appeared in the Heatham House Youth Centre's production of Sharman Macdonald's After Juliet. This play had been commissioned by the National Theatre for their National Connections programme where regional youth theatres would compete to stage short plays specially written by established playwrights. After Juliet would be concerned with events after the deaths of Romeo and Juliet, centring around Juliet's cousin Rosaline, an ex-flame of Romeo, who's murderously keen to rule the Capulets and take bloody revenge upon the Montagues.  Music would be provided by Keira's brother Caleb, now a music worker at Heatham House. Also appearing would be MattLeo Dean, a fellow pupil at Teddington and briefly Keira's boyfriend. They would split just before she left for Prague to film her next project.

Though the attractive Knightley was popular and respected at school, she found herself often upset due to a constant breaking up with friends mostly caused by her work. Things had got so bad that a week before her 13th birthday her mother had allowed her to have her belly-button pierced - just to cheer her up. What cheered her more, though, was that trip to Prague for Alan Bleasdale’s adaptation of Oliver Twist, a work that courageously stretched beyond Dickens’ work to enrich the characters and story. Here Keira played the young aunt of Oliver who, along with kindly executor Mr Brownlow, tries to protect the boy from his homicidal half-brother and, of course, the manipulative Fagin. Keeping with the classics, she'd also appear on BBC Radio 4 in Charlotte Bronte's Villette. This would see Catherine McCormack as the heroine Lucy Snowe with Joseph Fiennes as love interest Dr Bretton. Knightley would play the capricious and whimsical Polly, a friend of Lucy's flirty pal Ginevra Fanshawe, Polly eventually growing to love and marry Bretton. Also featuring would be Harriet Walter, later to appear with Knightley in Atonement.

Now the offers of work were coming in thick and fast. 2001 saw her star in the Disney-backed TV production Princess Of Thieves where she played Gwynn, daughter of Robin Hood and Maid Marian, who, despite her father’s promise to her dying mother, has secretly become an adept at archery and horse-riding. This proves helpful when Robin is imprisoned by the Sheriff of Nottingham (Malcolm McDowell) and attempts are made to assassinate Philip, the rightful heir to the throne. Only Gwynn and her dopey sidekick Froderick (who loves her on the quiet) stand between England and disaster.

It was an endearing romp and her first starring role (though she had headlined Star Wars I in an odd kind of way, indeed the Queen Amidala doll sold as merchandise had resembled Keira rather than Natalie Portman). It also introduced her to actor Del Synnott who played Froderick and would go on to star in the TV series Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels and play D.S Carter in Murphy’s Law. The couple would still be seeing each other when Knightley struck gold in 2003.

Immediately after Princess Of Thieves came another venture onto the big screen with the Brit horror flick The Hole. Here, alongside Thora Birch, Keira played one of four public schoolkids who are trapped for 2 weeks in a deep cavity originally intended as a bomb shelter. Keira’s character, Frankie, is blonde, charismatic and bitchy, going topless in her more lusty moments (a tad dodgy this as Knightley was only just 16 when the movie was released). And all ends bloodily as The Hole reveals itself to be a cross between The Breakfast Club and Lord Of The Flies, the excellent Embeth Davidtz playing the psychologist who must unravel the truth behind the unholy mess. Though not a hit itself, the movie would bring Keira to the attention of the makers of both Bend It Like Beckham and Dr Zhivago.

Naturally, her education had to continue and, after filming the short Deflation (directed by Roger Ashton-Griffiths, Friar Tuck in Princess Of Thieves, who was assisted by her mother Sharman), Knightley sat for her GCSEs while in the middle of shooting Bend It Like Beckham (is it a sign of falling standards that she still got 6 A-grades?). Soon the schedule would be too much to bear. Having started her A-levels at her local Esher College, where she studied Art, English Literature, History and Classical Civilisations, she dropped out during the first year, in order to take on Gillies MacKinnon’s Pure and the major miniseries Dr Zhivago.

First though came Bend It Like Beckham. Here a young Asian girl dreams of playing football for England but is dissuaded by her disapproving parents. That is, until she’s spotted playing in the park by Keira, a star of semi-pro girls’ team the Hounslow Harriers. So she joins up and begins to live her dream, though there’s trouble when both she and Keira fall for coach Jonathan Rhys-Meyers.

The movie was a real charmer and a major British success. Keira stood out as the tomboy Juliette Paxton, both in the scenes with her mother Juliet Stevenson, who attempts to make her wear a Wonderbra, and in the action sequences. For these she’d trained hard, at points with Simon Clifford, a coach of some renown who’d worked with Manchester United and with a young Michael Owen. Indeed, Clifford claimed that Knightley had picked up some aspects of the game quicker than Owen had (though of course she lacked his searing pace and unscrupulous penalty-winning techniques). The performance would win her the Best Newcomer Award from the London Critics Circle in 2003.

But 2002 wasn’t finished yet. After joining Synnott (who’d also appeared with her in Deflation) with a brief role in the silly comedy Thunderpants, where a grossly flatulent schoolboy is hired by NASA, she moved on to Pure. This saw Molly Parker as a young mother trying to bring up a 10-year-old boy while struggling with heroin addiction on an east London council estate. He’s befriended by Keira, the worldly-wise waitress at the local café who understands his situation but cannot prevent her own slide into addiction and prostitution. Depressing stuff, but well played.

Next came another period drama, this time a sexed-up remake of David Lean’s Dr Zhivago. Here Keira took on the role of Lara Antipova, a brave move considering she had to follow the character from the age of 16 to 32, as well as match the original enigmatic performance of Julie Christie. Not easy, given that, amidst the turbulence of the Russian revolution, she must represent Russia itself as she’s abused and pursued by a series of men, including Hans Matheson’s Zhivago and Sam Neill’s Komarovsky. For the second time Keira engaged in on-screen steaminess (the part had actually been turned down by singer Andrea Corr due to the excessive nudity), stating categorically that it was all part of the job.

Heavily advertised, Dr Zhivago was Knightley’s breakthrough in the UK. And she enjoyed the experience throughout. Filming for three months in Slovakia and Prague, she’d had her own flat for the first time and, being as the flat was in the red light area, was pleasantly intrigued by the sleazy freedom of the dirty video shop on the corner, the prostitute who worked the turf outside her window, and the constant sex in the nearby bushes. You don’t get that in Richmond.

She followed Dr Zhivago with three shorts. The first, The Seasons Alter, was an interpretation of Titania's famous "weather" speech in A Midsummer Night's Dream, with Keira delivering an extract alongside Cherie Lunghi's Titania and Lloyd Owen's Oberon. Then there'd be New Year's Eve, about a posh party where a fellow chats up Keira, thinking she's a respectable seventeen, only for trouble to brew when it's revealed that she's dangerously younger. Then there was the animated Gaijin, where she performed several roles, one being a British student who, unable to make friends in Tokyo, tries to program her robot to play Japanese music, only for the robot to cause more problems.

Now came Keira’s big year. In 2003's Pirates Of The Caribbean: The Curse Of The Black Pearl she played Elizabeth Swann, daughter of British governor Jonathan Pryce, who’s kidnapped by Geoffrey Rush, an undead buccaneer needing her blood to find redemption. Pursued by her wannabe lover Orlando Bloom and Johnny Depp’s camp and hilarious Jack Sparrow, she remained feisty to the last, even when walking the plank.

Despite fears that the movie would follow Cutthroat Island down to Davy Jones’ Locker, it performed exceptionally well, quickly rising over the $200 million mark in the US. At the same time, Bend It Like Beckham, taking advantage of Keira’s newfound kudos, had its release widened from 119 venues to 990, its take instantly rising to $28.3 million (not bad on a budget of $4.5 million). A worldwide take of $76 million would eventually be achieved. Keira, who’d turned 18 just after the Pirates shoot ended, was now A-list and a bona fide cover girl. After all, as critic AA Gill had put it, “the camera just licks Knightley’s face like an enraptured dog”. Plans would immediately be put in place for Pirates 2.

After Pirates would come Love, Actually, which intertwined ten tales of love, featuring such luminaries as Hugh Grant, Liam Neeson, Laura Linney, and Alan Rickman. Knightley claimed to have been continuously star-struck on-set and, for once acting her age, said she was less impressed by the major league thespians Rickman and Leeson than by former EastEnders actress Martine McCutcheon. There’d be further exposure when she became the new face of both luxury goods firm Asprey and the British Dyslexia Association. It was not all joy for Knightley, however. Having auditioned for the female lead in Joel Schumacher's The Phantom Of The Opera, she'd lose out to classically-trained Emmy Rossum. It was probably all for the best. Knightley was keenly aware that she was not capable of singing the part and yet had gone for it anyway, suffering terrible embarrassment. Years later, she'd explain that at this time she was driven to endlessly challenge herself, to work constantly, to learn, as she was afraid that producers were hiring her only for her pretty face, not for any acting ability. She was desperate to prove herself to herself, her peers and the world

After this, it was off to Ireland to play Guinevere opposite Clive Owen’s titular regent in King Arthur, like Pirates a Jerry Bruckheimer production. This would claim to be more of a historical document than another stab at the Arthurian myth, with Arthur as a Roman general at the time of the Empire’s downfall. Well, Hollywood knows best. When Arthur leads a mission to rescue a Roman family threatened by invading Saxons at Hadrian's Wall, he discovers a wasted, feral Knightley, a Pict princess, locked up and left to starve with her followers for being pagans. Impressed by Arthur and his reputation, she seduces him, much to the chagrin of Ioan Gruffudd's yearning Lancelot. She then turns woad-smeared warrior as she leads her people in a final confrontation with Stellan Skarsgaard's bearded bad guys. It was entertaining stuff, if exceptionally silly and riddled with errors, with Knightley extraordinarily effective as an archer, swordswoman and lover. Unsurprisingly, it would bomb badly at the box office.

Keira's next project was to have been Tulip Fever, with Tom Stoppard adapting Deborah Moggach’s novel of the crazy “tulip bubble” of 17th Century Amsterdam and Keira starring alongside Jude Law and Jim Broadbent. However, Chancellor Gordon Brown saw fit to cancel tax breaks available to British film-makers, throwing many projects into disarray, including Tulip Fever.

Instead, Keira moved on to John Maybury's The Jacket, where Oscar-winner Adrien Brody played a Gulf War veteran charged with murder and sent to an institution for the criminally insane. In here, experimented upon by demented doctor Kris Kristofferson, he's injected with hallucinogens and slid into a morgue locker where, like the hero in Slaughterhouse 5, he comes adrift in time. In the future he meets wired waitress Knightley, the grown version of a little girl whose mum he helped when her car broke down before he was incarcerated. Knightley's a goth vision, gaunt and unhappy, a heavy drinker and smoker, damaged by her mother's death by fire. She's freaked by Brody as she knows he died some 14 years before, but he convinces her of his story and so they investigate the events of the past (also becoming lovers) allowing Brody to take this information back to the asylum and, perhaps, prevent his own death. Originally planned as a mainstream thriller, The Jacket would have its budget reduced and be made as an art-house movie, and was all the darker and better for that. As the cynical, defensive and self-destructive waitress, Knightley would put in her finest performance to date.

Having missed out on Tulip Fever, Keira now found herself speaking the words of Deborah Moggach anyway, when the writer co-wrote the screenplay of her next project, a re-adaptation of Jane Austen's Pride And Prejudice. This saw Keira in the key role of Elizabeth Bennet, one of five sisters hoping to marry above their station and enduring all manner of misunderstanding and social intrigue. Knightley would bridge the gap between her sisters, giggling along with youngsters Carey Mulligan and Jena Malone, but also dealing in serious emotional trauma with elder sister Rosamund Pike. Feisty and independent throughout, she'd also become wiser in her dealings with Matthew MacFadyen's D'Arcy, peaking in a sharp confrontation with his elitist aunt Judy Dench who demands that Knightley leave her nephew to marry into his own class. Knightley stands up to her and politely sends her packing. Director Joe Wright would use Knightley well and there'd be many, many shots of her confused and seeking the truth of her heart, on swings, bridges and cliff-tops, often in the rain and always amidst fabulous rustic scenery. In 2007 Wright would direct Knightley again, this time in adverts for Chanel's Mademoiselle perfume, Knightley having taken over from Kate Moss as the face of the smell.

Pride and Prejudice proved to be far more than just another Jane Austen adaptation. Not only did it make money in the States, it also saw Keira, her performance described by uber-critic Roger Ebert as "light and yet fierce", nominated for both an Oscar and a Golden Globe. In real life, Knightley's D'Arcy had changed at the end of 2003 when, her relationship with Del Synott over, she'd taken up with Irish model Jamie Dornan, who'd just scored his first acting role in Sophia Coppola's Marie Antionette. After Pride & Prejudice, though, she would form a relationship with Rupert Friend, who'd played the super-cad soldier Mr Wickham.

Following hot on the heels of Pride and Prejudice would come a very different proposition in Domino, where she'd play the title role of Domino Harvey, daughter of the actor Laurence Harvey, who rebelled against her privileged background and left a career in modelling to become an LA bounty hunter. Directed by Tony Scott, the movie would be very grungey, slipping (maybe) between fantasy and reality, and Knightley would be tested by a role that required her to be almost continuously angry.

Any further career expansion would be put on temporary hold as she now filmed two sequels for Pirates Of The Caribbean back to back, the first seeing Depp's Jack Sparrow flirting with Knightley and attempting to save the soul he's bargained away with Davey Jones and his phantom crew, the second having Knightley, Orlando Bloom and Geoffrey Rush first save Depp from the land beyond death, then take on evil nobleman Tom Hollander and immortal villain Bill Nighy. During the films Knightley would develop from damsel in distress to the level of swordsmanship she'd exhibited in Knig Arthur. While filming took place all we'd see of Knightley were tasteful nude shots as she posed alongside Scarlett Johansson for the cover of Vanity Fair (within a year or so Johansson would replace Knightley when she dropped out of The Other Boleyn Girl). She'd also appear in the press in January, 2007, when she sued the Daily Mail for claiming that she was anorexic and that pictures of her and others had contributed to the death of a young girl. Knightley would win the case and donate her damages to an anorexia charity. 

Though entertaining and money-spinning (they'd take over a billion dollars in the States alone) the Pirates Of The Caribbean movies were hardly testing for Knightley. They brought fame and fortune but did not fulfil her desire for respect. Thus she would begin to regularly move towards more challenging propositions. Next would come Silk, set in the 1860s and based on the novel by Alessandro Baricco. Here French silk merchant Michael Pitt would travel to Japan, seeking silkworms to replace those killed by an epidemic in his own country. While there, though, he falls for Sei Ashina, concubine of a rich Japanese baron, an absolutely forbidden love, leaving his wife Keira, a resourceful and passionate schoolteacher, to suffer his indifference and plot rather shocking ways of both feeding and destroying his new obsession. The film strove to be an erotic epic and certainly looked tremendous, but it lingered too long on an empty love and failed to ignite the feelings of worldwide audiences.

Her second literary adaptation of 2007 would be Atonement, written by Ian McEwan with a screenplay by Christopher Hampton. Directed by her Pride And Prejudice helmsman Joe Wright, this concerned goings-on at a country manor in 1935 where Knightley would play the oldest daughter of a rich family who's becoming ever more drawn to James McAvoy, the housekeeper's son, who's been Oxford-educated at Knightley's father's expense.  Disaster strikes when Knightley's jealous younger sister, Saoirse Ronan, sees the couple together and tells a terrible lie that will bind and destroy the trio over the years. As the world turns to war, Knightley and her sister, now played by Romola Garai, become nurses in London, while McAvoy suffers in the army at Dunkirk. Exploring the power of deceit and memory, the film would draw another powerful performance from Knightley, seeing her nominated for both a BAFTA and a Golden Globe, also reuniting her with her Pride & Prejudice mother Brenda Blethyn, here playing McAvoy's mum. On a lighter note, Knightley would also turn up alongside Jane Horrocks and Gillian Anderson in the third Robbie the Reindeer animation, in aid of Comic Relief. Here Robbie's wedding to Horrocks in interrupted by aliens and he finds he must save the world from evil intergalactic queen Anderson. Knightley would appear as Horrocks' sister, an ultra-organised bridesmaid who happens to work for a secret government agency tracking alien activity on Earth.

2008 would bring two more pieces with a literary bent. First would come The Edge Of Love, directed by her Jacket helmsman John Maybury and written by her mother, Sharman Macdonald. Here Knightley would play Vera Phillips, a nightclub singer during the Blitz who runs into childhood sweetheart Dylan Thomas, played by Matthew Rhys, who's writing propaganda for the war effort. With the arrival of Thomas's party animal wife Caitlin (Lindsay Lohan pulled out a week before filming to be replaced by Sienna Miller) they become an inseparable trio, a free-and-easy situation complicated when Knightley also becomes involved with besotted army captain Cillian Murphy.  Now the four of them descend into a nightmare of separation, adultery, betrayal and attempted murder, Knightley at first enthused by love, then forlorn, confused and battered by life before she fights back, defiant.

The Edge Of Love would be interesting but a failure at the box office, much like Knightley's next picture, The Duchess. This was based on Amanda Foreman's best-seller investigating the life of Georgiana Spencer, who became Duchess of Devonshire in 1774. Knightley would play the noblewoman of the title, married off to the super-rich Ralph Fiennes, a glum, repressive adulterer who wants her only to provide a male heir. Rather than being crushed by her husband's attitudes and behaviour, the liberal, even revolutionary Knightley becomes an 18th Century It Girl, a taste-maker for the general public and a political prime mover behind the Whigs, even finding time for an affair with Dominic Cooper's Earl Grey. Though, naturally, much emotion had to be hidden, Knightley was excellent at lip-biting and particularly when she was forced to hand her illegitimate daughter over to Cooper's family.

Now she'd been Oscar-nominated and was much in demand, a more confident Knightley would take a year off from film acting in order to reassess her career and her future. Her next move would see her return to the stage for the first time since After Juliet, when she was just 14. This was in Martin Crimp's version of Moliere's The Misanthrope, directed by Thea Sharrock who'd recently coaxed an excellent performance from another young film actor, Daniel Radcliffe, in Equus. Knightley would play Jennifer, a hot Hollywood film star who descends briefly on London. Damian Lewis would play Alceste, the titular mope, a playwright who's petulantly in love with Knightley and resents being forced to join in with her world of celebrity and the media, with all its insincerity, silliness and inconsequence. Tara Fitzgerald would also appear as Knightley's bitchy mentor, desperate to retain some foothold in the court of queen Keira. Though she started hesitantly, Knightley would quickly grow into the part of the mysterious, mischievous Jennifer, her raging desire to be loved seeing her behave differently with each person she meets, thereby maintaining her enigma. She'd use her sexuality overtly and be unafraid to rage, piling into a false friend and giving Lewis a dreadful tongue-lashing. Given special exercises by Sharrock and stage advice from another co-star, Nicholas Le Prevost, Knightley would enjoy the camaraderie of the theatre company and improve rapidly, even being nominated for an Olivier award alongside Hayley Atwell (with whom she'd appeared in The Duchess) and Ruth Wilson, who'd win it for her part alongside Rachel Weisz in A Streetcar Named Desire.

Unsurprisingly, with such a big star in the cast, The Misanthrope would be a giant financial success, taking $2 million in ticket sales in four days, even before rehearsals had begun. But there were negatives in Knightley's life, too. Plotting her return to the screen, she'd go for the lead opposite her Pirates Of The Caribbean co-star Johnny Depp in Hunter Thompson's The Rum Diary, but lose out to Amber Heard. Her only screen appearance of 2009 would be in the bizarre short The Continuing And Lamentable Saga Of The Suicide Brothers, co-starring her partner Rupert Friend, then very much on the up after strong showings in The Young Victoria with Emily Blunt and Cheri with Michelle Pfeiffer. In the short, Friend and Tom Mison would play Bavarian oddballs with stiff quiffs and lederhosen, so bored by life in their fairy tale cottage they attempt each day to take their own lives. While they seek death they fail to notice Knightley, a white, bright fairy, charming, otherworldly and moving with insectoid speed as she plays in the cuckoo clock and on the turntable. Pretty and natural with her shiny wings and bits of wood in her gleaming wig, she cannot draw them back towards life.

Though she'd turned down the lead in a new production of My Fair Lady, Knightley would still be busy, 2010 bringing several new releases. First there'd be Last Night where she'd be in an endangered marriage to Sam Worthington. Away on business, he'd be tempted by colleague Eva Mendes. At home, meanwhile, Knightley meets up with former lover Guillaume Canet. Following this would come London Boulevard, based on the novel by Ken Bruen which re-set Sunset Boulevard in the London underworld. The directorial debut of William Monahan, writer of The Departed and Kingdom Of Heaven, this would see Colin Farrell as a recently released jailbird, attempting to escape his violent past and landing a job as handyman to famous actress Knightley, now a recluse and hiding form the press (in the book she's much older, as in the original). Knightley entices Farrell with expensive gifts and erotic promise, but he then gets involved with Anna Friel and much double-dealing, violence finally catching up with him again. Also featuring would be Friel's real-life partner David Thewlis and Knightley's King Arthur co-star Ray Winstone.

Knightley's final release of 2010 would be the strange, disturbing Never Let Me Go, directed by Mark Romanek and based on Kazuo Ishiguro's novel. This would concern a bleak future England where clones are bred to have their body-parts harvested. The action would follow three main protagonists, all clones, as they pass through their schooling and their painfully truncated lives, dreaming of parents, love and salvation, trying to make sense of their horrible lot. Knightley would star as Ruth, cynical and seemingly strong, who dominates her relationships with lover Andrew Garfield and friend and carer Carey Mulligan. Also featuring would be Andrea Riseborough and Charlotte Rampling, who'd earlier played Knightley's mother in The Duchess.

Knightley's other screen appearance of 2010 would be an interesting one. Back in the summer of 2006 she'd gone to see her friend and Pride & Prejudice co-star Rosamund Pike in Gaslight at the Old Vic. Backstage she'd met another friend of Pike's, the artist Stuart Pearson Wright who'd earlier used Pike as the subject of one of his famed angular portraits. Coincidentally, Wright had recently written to Knightley asking if he could paint her, but had received no reply. Now they would go out to dinner with Pike and, a few months later, would meet again at a party where they'd end up jamming on toy instruments with Kathy Burke, Knightley on kazoo and Wright on plastic trombone. From here on they'd continue to occasionally meet, with the notion of collaborating on some artwork and, in March 2009, while Knightley was on her break from cinema and just before she began rehearsals for The Misanthrope, they'd shoot a 12-minute short at Longleat. Here she'd be an Elizabethan maiden, Lady Constance, with Wright as her gallant courtier. Separated, they're lost in a maze, their amusement turning to worry and then to panic as the light fades and they fail to reunite. The pair would be shot separately and would appear on separate screens facing each other when the short, titled Maze and in its look inspired by El Greco, was shown at the Riflemaker gallery in London's Beak Street in May, 2010. Knightley, clad in hoops, loops, ruffs and a giant wig (she be used to this as she'd just completed The Duchess) would be impressive in her presentation of a gradually increasing sense of unease.

2011 would bring another challenging project in The Talking Cure, directed by David Cronenberg and based on the 2002 play by Christopher Hampton, who'd earlier written the screenplay for Atonement and Rupert Friend's Cheri. Featuring Viggo Mortensen as Sigmud Freud and Michael Fassbender as Carl Jung, the film would explore the case of Sabina Spielrein, played by Knightley, a Russian woman from a large Jewish family who was both an hysteric and sexually excited by her father's attempts at discipline. She'd be the first patient on whom Jung tried out Freud's methods, then would become Jung's assistant and lover, before working with Freud and herself becoming an influential psychoanalyst. Indeed, she may have been the source of Jung's theories of the anima and animus. Heavy on dialogue, the film would be deep and intriguing. The original play, covering the ideas that had united then divided Freud and Jung, had seen Ralph Fiennes, Knightley's husband in the Duchess, as Jung.

Keira Knightley's story, that of a dyslexic kid with no formal training who conquered Hollywood, is a fascinating one. Considering her approach to her craft and her willingness to challenge herself, she's certain to stay at the top for years to come.

Dominic Wills

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