Keira Knightley's 10 Best Roles (So Far), Ranked

Since she began acting in 1993, when she was just seven years old, Keira Knightley has had quite the career. Her first part was as an unnamed young girl in Screen One: Royal Celebration. Since then her work has spanned every genre and three decades of consistent work. The work that first gained her a lot of recognition was when she played Padme’s (Natalie Portman) double in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. 

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Knightley has 57 acting credits to her name, so picking a top ten wasn’t an easy process. But here are ten of Knightley’s best roles…so far. 

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10 Penny — Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World (2012)

Knightley’s starring role in Lorene Scafaria’s adventure comedy, alongside Steve Carrell, was one of the few things praised about this movie. It was a financial failure, and holds only a 55% on Rotten Tomatoes. But Knightley and Carrell had good chemistry on screen, which earned a lot of praise from critics. 

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Penny accompanies Dodge Petersen (Steve Carrell) on his road trip to find his high school sweetheart, Olivia, on the eve of the end of the world. Along the way they witness some of the strangest behavior that would probably occur if an asteroid were truly approaching Earth, before ultimately falling in love with each other.

9 Anna — Anna Karenina (2012)

This adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s 1877 novel was written by Tom Stoppard and directed by Joe Wright. It was her third collaboration with Wright. Knightley starred alongside Jude Law, who played her husband Karenin, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who played her love interest Vronsky. The film follows the traditional Anna Karenina narrative, though it glosses over parts in favor of beautiful cinematography in ways that drew a lot of criticism.

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The movie received generally positive reviews, but the Knightley’s performance in particular was lauded by many. However, some critiqued it for having less depth than a similar role in The Duchess. Ultimately, Knightley plays Anna beautifully in a mediocre movie that doesn’t deserve Knightley’s talent. 

8 Elizabeth Swann — Pirates Of The Caribbean (2003)

The 2003 movie adapted from a theme park ride was a surprisingly huge summer blockbuster that made Keira Knightley a worldwide celebrity. It is probably the movie series that she is known best for. In it she stars alongside Johnny Depp and Orlando Bloom, who must save her from the dangerous and cursed pirates aboard the Black Pearl. 

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In Pirates of the Caribbean, Elizabeth is a brave and progressive feminist character, one of many times that Knightley portrayed a woman who doesn’t need saving as much as the men around her think she does. She is bright, clever, and strong, and the only person in the movie who is able to put the rascal Jack Sparrow in his place.

7 Cecilia Tallis — Atonement (2007)

Knightley stars alongside James McAvoy and Saoirse Ronan in this war and romance film directed by Joe Wright. Knightley plays older sister Cecilia to Ronan’s young Briony. When Cecilia falls in love with McAvoy’s character Robbie on the eve of World War II, Ronan’s jealousy leads her to wrongfully accuse him of rape. He is imprisoned, and only released to fight in France. The movie follows the ultimate tragedy of their story. Knightley’s portrayal of Cecilia is deftly subtle and tragic. 

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The film won an Academy Award as well as 50 other awards, and was nominated for a total of 148 awards, including 7 Golden Globes.

6 Joan Clarke — The Imitation Game (2014)

In this historical drama, Knightley played Joan Clarke, the friend and lone person who stands by the genius Alan Turing after he is publicly outed as gay. Thought it was publicly criticized by many for downplaying Turing’s homosexuality in favor of his work breaking the German codes in WWII, the Human Rights Campaign honored it for spreading Turing’s legacy to a worldwide audience.

Though the increased role of Joan Clarke over her supposedly less important role in Turing’s real life was critiqued heavily, Knightley was nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of the loving and largely forgotten code breaker. The film was widely lauded as poignant and nuanced. 

5 Jules — Bend it Like Beckham (2002)

When this movie was released, critics were surprised by the charming, feel-good romantic comedy. It’s an inspiring story as well as quite funny, and has clever undertones of social commentary. Knightley portrays Jules, a close friend and supporter of Parminder Nagra’s character Jesminder. 

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Knightley’s performance was full of nuance and good will—a genuine attempt to help a girl straddle the divide between the culture of her immigrant parents and the culture of the country she lives in. It’s kind and hilarious—and occasionally critiqued for not portraying an explicitly LGBT character. Knightley has stated publicly that she wishes Jess and Jules had become a couple—“I think that would’ve been great!” The movie won at the British Comedy Awards, and was nominated for a BAFTA and a Golden Globe. 

4 Sabrina Spielrein — A Dangerous Method (2011)

This historical film directed by David Cronenberg also starred Viggo Mortenson, Michael Fassbender, and Vicent Cassel. It explores the intense and often turbulent relationship between between Carl Jung, Sigmund Freud, and Sabrina Spielrein. Speilrein began as a patient of Jung and later became one of the first female psychoanalysts. 

Knightley’s portrayal of Speilrein’s tangled and unhealthy sexual/academic/medical relationship with Jung is nuanced and arresting. Their relationship is one of the driving forces of the movie, and arguably sets in motion the ultimate fate of every person portrayed. Knightley was nominated for Best Actress by the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror for her role.

3 Elizabeth Bennet — Pride & Prejudice (2005)

This 2005 movie was the one that began Knightley’s long career of amazing period roles. There have been many adaptations of Jane Austen’s novel, but this one directed by Joe Wright and starring Knightley has been the most highly lauded. She stars alongside Matthew Macfayden, Carey Mulligan, Judi Dench, and Rosamund Pike, creating a powerhouse film by some of the best actors of the day. Her portrayal of Elizabeth is uniquely relatable while still being true to Austen’s original stubborn and occasionally judgmental character. Her acting is characterized as lifting the entire film, so it’s fitting that she was nominated for an Oscar for Best Performance By an Actress in a Leading Role.

2 Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess Of Devonshire — The Duchess (2008)

Knightley starred as the young Georgiana who is betrothed to the much older cold and calculating Duke of Devonshire, William Cavedish, played by Ralph Fiennes. Their relationship is stormy and marked by disappointment, infidelity and violence. Both parties eventually take other lovers, and resign themselves to a life of public scandal. 

The film was a rare chance to take a character through several years of growth—she’s married at 17 and the plot takes viewers through the next 10 years of her life. Knightley was praised for the depth of her portrayal—in her hands, Georgiana is both witty and feminine and well as tortured and subtly feminist in her reflections and behavior.  

1 Colette - Colette (2018)

Yet another of Knightley’s historical dramas tops this list. She plays the French novelist and performer Colette, who writes a novel based on her school days that her husband Willy publishes under his own name. As their notoriety increases, she attracts the Georgie, a debutante from Louisiana, and then later falls in love with Missy, a socialite who preferred masculine attire. 

Knightley is at the top of her game in this brave and nuanced portrait of a woman who bucked trends to live life on her own terms. She brings Colette from a young woman who is thrust into a society she doesn’t understand to a liberated and determined author in her own right. 

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