Presence, Performance, and Period Dramas

Keira Knightley & Joe Wright on the set of Anna Karenina
Keira Knightley and Joe Wright on the set of Anna Karenina (2012) | Focus Features

Presence for a woman is so intrinsic to her person that men tend to think of it as an almost physical emanation, a kind of heat or smell or aura.

—John Berger, Ways of Seeing, 1972

On a purely superficial level, she [Keira Knightley] just gets more beautiful–which is very fair on the rest of us as we all get to admire her.

—Joe Wright, speaking to Vogue, 2011

Almost every character I’ve played has tried to break out of that image of femininity. That’s why I like period films, because it’s such an overt cage you put the woman in. That’s always something I’ve really identified with.

—Keira Knightley, interview with The Guardian, 2018


In his seminal 1972 essay
Ways of Seeing, English critic John Berger explores humanity’s relationship with making and viewing art in the Western world, both on the canvas and in observing the world around us. It remains an astute guidebook today, notably in its sensitive observations of objectification’s effect on women’s relationship with themselves. This presentation of self—and its fundamental incompatibility with an authentic self—was drawn from a career of looking at Western art from the Renaissance to the present day, where women’s names are not so often seen on the walls of galleries but their forms are presented for the pleasure of those who stroll by. It feels like a prescient observation on today’s largely women-run Instagram influencer culture as much as it is a critique of the artist as man/muse as women dichotomy that has existed from Rubens to Rodin and beyond. How can a woman be when she exists not for herself but for an invisible, omnipresent lens? 

Consider her hair. It is down and disheveled, deliberately dirtied by a walk through the boggy English countryside. Or it is worn in chic curls cut short in the style of the day; later it is longer, tied back with two small ribbons for a self-effacing functionality. Or perhaps it is swept into high society curls for the imperial Russian ballrooms—and then chopped short when physical and psychological illness ravages a body once desired. It always conveys how she wants to be perceived, sometimes blending in for social survival, sometimes artfully arranged in direct contradiction to propriety.

These examples correspond to Keira Knightley’s central roles in three period dramas directed by Joe Wright between 2005 and 2012. Each film is adapted from a well-regarded, well-known novel and sees Knightley make three iconic heroines her own. Every viewer has their favorite Pride & Prejudice, but Knightley’s sprightly Elizabeth Bennet is immediately recognizable and endearing. It is hard to imagine anyone other than the actress, then not even 22 years old, bringing the impetuous frustrations of Atonement’s Cecilia Tallis to life quite so achingly. And in one of the English language’s most successful Tolstoy adaptations, she plays Anna Karenina almost against type, pitting the doomed wife’s desperation and self-awareness dynamically—and unforgettably—at odds. The pair’s success in the genre is hard to understate, both in the quality of the output and in their unique, varying approach to each familiar tale. And in each, Berger’s words find particular truth. 

Despite different source material and eras—an English Regency romance, an even-more-English interwar tragedy, and an imperial Russian catastrophe—these roles are distinctly connected by Knightley’s composed, conscious performances and Wright’s painstaking world-building around her. Much can and has been said about the faithfulness of each adaptation, but what the original authors intended feels far less important than their place in Knightley’s and Wright’s cinematic canon, where they reinvent these classic stories through their own distinct, symbiotic approach that highlights the beautiful worlds and not-so-beautiful realities its women face, unearthing a new revelation with each entry into their canon.

Knightley is given lead billing in all Wright films, yet she never plays the woman initially at the center of the action. Instead, she is the one drawn in by forces unleashed outside of her control—often by other members of her characters’ factious families. As Elizabeth, Cecilia, and Anna become protagonists, they also become the romantic heroine, and their love stories form the shorthand for their journeys. Yet the men to whom they tie themselves say more about Knightley’s characters’ keen self-awareness and manipulation of their image within—and against—their social frameworks than they do about a love story. Despite excellent performances from Matthew MacFadyen, James McAvoy, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Mr. Darcy, Robbie, and Count Vronsky, respectively, represent the financial, class, or romantic freedom at the heart of the women’s conflict. In all films, the women’s challenges stem from self-perception and projection against these objects and obstacles, and this struggle proves most poignant. 

This is not to say they are carbon copies of each other—they face different challenges, in different stages of life, with different reactions to the world around them. Knightley’s mastery of craft and Wright’s mastery of place never gives the sense of telling the same tale over and over. Wright’s initial tangential positioning of Knightley’s self-reflexive protagonist, however, is crucial to understanding the pair’s exploration of what autonomy was available to these women in their respective worlds. 

Berger’s words are a fitting roadmap for Knightley’s characterizations: Elizabeth in rebellion, Cecilia in desire, and Anna in the limits of power. Her dual awareness and identification in each characterization is almost as much of a lens as Wright’s camera. Likewise, the director’s combination of meta-theatricality and naturalism (and aesthetic appreciation of Knightley which is almost certainly a purposefully superficial simplification in the opening quote) creates a sincere and sympathetic world to interrogate the cages—overt and hidden—of womanhood.

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Keira Knightley & Matthew Macfadyen in Pride & Prejudice (2005)
Pride & Prejudice (2005) | Focus Features

To be born a woman has been to be born, within an allotted and confined space, into the keeping of men. The social presence of women has developed as a result of their ingenuity in living under such tutelage within such a limited space… 

Wright builds the limitations of his worlds through perpetual motion. The Bennet, Tallis, and Oblonsky homes are revealed as the camera tracks through the communal and private spaces, following equally mobile bodies on their separate errands. It is no wonder Elizabeth, Cecilia, and Anna turn their ingenuity to small rebellions: they never have a break.  

There is little room for error in this domestic choreography; even the warm, homey, distinctly feminine chaos of the Bennets’ bustling—underscored by Mary at the piano—delineates their rituals as part of larger social anxieties. Mrs. Bennet and her two youngest daughters may squeal over the arrival of a rich and single neighbor, but if one of the eldest two daughters does not marry—and quickly—homelessness is a word away. 

Audience familiarity with Austen on film, and the often-ruthless courtships that comprise her conflicts, lets Wright’s uniquely kind and nostalgic approach to Regency romance shine through. His camera barely leaves Elizabeth’s perspective throughout this narrative, allowing her subtle switches in conduct and reactions to the proceedings to register without undue emphasis. Through this lens, Elizabeth’s societal rebellion is built out of the safety and unconditional love of her surroundings, her home. 

Atonement begins similarly: at the family estate , the lens never still as preparations for a play and party force characters to steal moments of rest. The family gathering proves fateful and tragic, when Cecilia’s younger sister Briony falsely accuses Robbie of rape, which sends him to prison for four static years. When the film resumes, the shortness of time is again made all too real in Blitz London, caught in half-hour tea breaks and buses that run for a timetable, not for lovers. As in Pride & Prejudice, Wright casts a largely naturalistic lens over this world, building relationships by capturing fly-on-the-wall moments of understated intimacy and the hazy warmth leading to a pivotal night of passion. The stakes are lower for the Tallis family; marriage for their two daughters will be suitable matches by class but survival is not the object, and this is evident in the vastness of their country estate. There is no danger of being turned out, penniless, or of constantly being underfoot among shrieking sisters. Indeed it is very possible for the only human interaction to be glimpsed from afar and easily misinterpreted. Any thoughts of passion must still be discreet. 

With its expansive cast and unfolding years, Tolstoy’s mammoth of a novel Anna Karenina does not seem fitting material for a feature film. However, it proves the arguable height of Knightley and Wright’s collaboration as Anna’s carefully controlled world comes crashing down around her. Wright and screenwriter Tom Stoppard ingeniously frame the action around the panopticon of imperial Russian high society, allowing all to become spectators and commentators as the central adulterous love affair unfolds. The picture is darker, and sharper throughout, than in the hazy English romance scenes in his preceding films.

The action in Anna Karenina literally unfolds in a theater—ballrooms are stages, horse races are watched from the auditorium, dressing rooms see marriages break down, and those laborers who push the increasingly industrial world forward live in the wings. The opening sees Anna’s brother Stiva Oblonsky (a new, moustachioed MacFadyen) work his life with the flair of an emcee and the precision of a ballet rehearsal as his children have lessons in a green room and he kisses the nanny behind the curtains—only for his wife to pull them back. According to Knightley, this super-theatrical setting came about only 10 weeks before filming started and was a collaborative approach between actress and director, allowing them to condense Tolstoy’s world and pinpoint Anna amidst the unwieldy cast of characters before shooting began. All the world’s a stage—and all the men and women keen for the latest gossip.

By 2012, Knightley was no longer the universal ingenue—she was 27 at time of Anna Karenina’s release, which is Anna’s age at the start of the novel and plays into Anna’s sensuality against the more sheltered heroines of her past. Anna immediately stands out from Knightley and Wright’s other heroines, exuding a distinct and mature presence and envelops everything around her. She sweeps into the Moscow social scene on a cloud of self-assurance, having been called in from Saint Petersburg to deal with the fall-out of her brother’s infidelity. She believes herself to be indispensable, essential, the only person to save this family and leave contentment behind her. In short—she believes herself to be the protagonist before the story catches up. And with an economically and socially prosperous marriage under her belt, and a house, husband, and son that run like clockwork, why would she believe any different?

Cecilia has a similar confidence, even cockiness, even though Atonement is the one film of these three where Knightley’s character is, on paper as well as in the initial action, the secondary female lead. This is Briony’s story, and her old sister Cecilia is collateral damage. But it should not be: Cecilia Tallis knows her worth, what she wants, and the impossible, romance novel-only attainability of this from the start. The tragedy of her loss is highlighted by the centrality it would take in other narratives. Through this lens, Cecilia’s and Knightley’s centrality to the marketing (Atonement premiered in 2007, riding directly on the success of Pride & Prejudice) and story (Knightley is the only actress to appear in all acts of this multi-generational saga) is no accident.

And in any other tale but Austen’s, Jane Bennet is the heroine. Beautiful, blonde Jane, the eldest Bennet sister, destined to marry the newest, handsomest, and most personable bachelor who has recently taken up residence in Netherfield Park. But Austen makes Elizabeth—the second sister with more interest in witty repartee than marriage—her immortal heroine, and her circuitous romance with the taciturn Mr. Darcy proves the heart of the romance.

Knightley’s Elizabeth is most comfortable in the second daughter role, happily conceding the spotlight and marital expectations to Jane. But through subtle switches in the character’s performativity, Knightley makes it clear that Elizabeth knows this arrangement is temporary—her time will come, and she should enjoy her relative freedom while it lasts. The smallest crooked smiles and cutting remarks—out of earshot of strangers, in earshot of her increasingly overwhelmed mother—become rebellions in this allotted and confined space, where she will pass from her father to her husband when the day arrives. 

Elizabeth is the only one of these three heroines who happily carves out a role on the periphery, only to be thrust into the spotlight when Jane’s starring role is curtailed and her younger sisters’ futures are threatened by the philandering Mr. Wickham. Finding her happily ever involves reassessing her judgments and her suitor but no fundamental changes in her free-spirited identity. Knightley’s more mature roles, however, have no such luck.

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Keira Knightley in Atonement (2007)
Atonement (2007) | Universal

She has to survey everything she is and everything she does because how she appears to others, and ultimately how she appears to men, is of crucial importance for what is normally thought of as the success of her life. Her own sense of being in herself is supplanted by a sense of being appreciated as herself by another.

Knightley captures Cecilia’s restlessness in taught hands, studied athleticism, and a body that opens and folds on itself in both tension and ease. She is not running between sisters, mothers, and the fatherly escape like Elizabeth but seeks the eyes of one man—Robbie the groundskeeper, a love affair far below her station. She seeks connection through direct action: sharing a cigarette, diving into a fountain after a broken vase, donning a backless green satin dress and setting up the hottest library sex scene on screen. Her actions reflect her desires within the bounds of propriety—at least when she thinks herself safe from her family’s prying eyes.

Cecilia is the constant subject rather than the storyteller, and the fact that she is always seen through or for another highlights the painstaking control she exerts over how she wishes to be perceived. She is first seen through the eyes of her confused younger sister, who cannot understand the physical longings the elder Tallis makes clear in every motion. The dangers Cecilia is courting thus become clear before Briony’s fateful accusation. Robbie, however, is Cecilia’s audience, and the full power of her meticulous, marvellous beauty is only seen through his eyes.

In a more measured way, Elizabeth portrays a different side of herself around each of her family members, and then again in the public sphere. Her mother’s matchmaking schemes elicit a wrinkled nose and quick scurry to her father’s study, where Mr. Bennet has hidden himself out of the women’s way. Here, she slouches against his desk, sharing an exasperated laugh before going back out to save Jane from (most of) her mother’s worst ideas. But her eyes shine and her grin is wide and unforced in her nighttime conversations with her older, most beautiful sister—here they can dream. 

At balls and in her social visits, Elizabeth’s guard is up, only letting bafflement show on her face when she is sure she cannot be seen. Unfortunately for MacFadyen’s painfully honest and dance-averse Mr. Darcy, she shapes her retorts with a half-smile, half-sneer, refusing to ignore the slight and be ignored in her response. Life is not a pleasant game, but she survives and takes what joy she can. 

Unlike Elizabeth and Cecilia, Anna saves her worst antagonisms and sins of propriety for the most public sphere. She throws herself against the demure, inexperienced Kitty Shcherbatskaya (Alicia Vikander at her most angelic), swanning into the ball Saint Petersburg society has reserved for Kitty’s coming out on the arms of her equally ostentatious brother Stiva, and dazzling Kitty’s intended fiancé Count Vronsky. The framing and much-changed presences of the actors calls back to Elizabeth’s first Netherfield ball with Darcy, showing an urbane, decadent, scene-stopping display rather than an awkward meeting of social misfits who concede the spotlight. 

This is the backdrop as Anna begins her electric, horrifically unwise love affair with Vronsky. One dance whose eroticism stems from the always moving hands sets tongues wagging and humiliates her unprepared rival—and this humiliation is not Anna’s intent as much as it is her all-encompassing need for center stage. At the racetrack Anna shamelessly cries out in dismay when Vronsky’s horse breaks its leg. She embraces the notoriety and publicly, firmly separates from her husband, knowing she is breaking the rules and revelling in it. Even her secretive, hopeless voyage to see her son on his birthday, an outlaw in her own house, opens to the servants’ gaze like the Pietà.  

But one woman cannot stand alone when every option is tied to a man, and her view of herself first as a wife, sister, and mistress. Tableaus of their lovemaking start picturesque, and soon become stifling. 

In explosive, impulsive Cecilia’s case, fate by way of Briony intervenes. After Robbie is accused and imprisoned and Cecilia’s passion is thwarted, we see the pair again briefly. Robbie has secured an early release if he will fight in France, and Cecilia has followed him as a nurse. Separation has fractured any obedience to familial expectation, instead reframing and resolving her entire being and humble calling around her star-crossed lover. Bold words and languidly confident movements are replaced with a softer, tentative reserve. Her form-fitting skirts and backless satin dresses have been replaced by a medical uniform, and hair once artfully arranged is utilitarian. 

The brief canteen meeting is the last time Robbie and Cecilia meet before their wartime deaths. They appear again in the film, but in the fairer, kinder world of Briony’s fiction. This story-within-a-story is the single time Cecilia can truly be free, and that freedom manifests itself not only in carefree, private love but an honest, unutterable rage in the privacy of an imaginary home. It is the only justice Robbie and Cecilia get, and it cannot save them. 

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A woman’s presence expresses her own attitude to herself, and defines what can and cannot be done to her. Her presence is manifest in her gestures, voice, opinions, expressions, clothes, chosen surroundings, taste—indeed there is nothing she can do which does not contribute to her presence.

The oppressiveness of unfulfilled desire weighs on every move Cecilia makes. Unlike Elizabeth, Cecilia is the eldest daughter and the first in line for a sensible match; like Elizabeth, Cecilia rebels against these expectations. Knightley’s torso slouches into her skirt as she assists with party preparation. She dives into fountain and lake (only the latter with a swimsuit) with an easy awareness of her own physicality. She knows the eyes of one man will be on her—the only man who matters. Yet in a move both Jane and Elizabeth would find unthinkable, Cecilia neglects to survey everything she is and everything she does in her quest for appreciation as herself from her beloved, inviting misunderstanding and tragedy through the eyes of her younger sister.

In one of Pride and Prejudice’s most memorable moments, Elizabeth walks from the Bennets’ Longbourn to Netherfield to visit the unwell Jane. She enters knowing her dress is dripping mud and her hair is in disarray, wearing her bedraggled appearance with a cocky, deliberate pride to the horror of Miss Bingley. While the film is largely faithful to Recency social conventions and realities, Knightley’s approach takes a decidedly, purposefully modern awareness of agency. No romance with Darcy will change Elizabeth’s fundamental presence that she creates at odds with the world—she realizes her initial assessment of the awkward bachelor was incorrect, but this romance requires neither party to change, only to see each other for who they are. 

It is therefore notable that Elizabeth’s demeanor only changes when she is by herself. As she tours around Pemberley—alone, silent, with only statues for company—Knightley lets Elizabeth’s guard down. For the first time, she seems unsure of her future and choices amidst so much open space and frozen pictures, with Wright’s framing highlighting the moment performance is no longer necessary. 

Anna Karenina is the culmination of seven years’ collaboration, and the end of Anna’s journey shows both artists at their most masterful. Anna’s entire being is fed by approval and admiration from others. She thrives on the attention when she solves problems and creates them: fixing a home to start, breaking a home throughout the rest of Tolstoy’s plot. But her society only rewards intrigue to a certain point, and Anna tips the scales towards universal shame with her flaunted infidelity. Knightley’s eyes flash with confusion and defiance, heartrendingly capturing Anna’s realization that the game she has played for so long no longer works in her favour. Her charisma is a curse when she sweeps into the opera house with cropped hair curled high and pearls stacked over increasingly low necklines, dressing in black to scandalize, white to protest, and back to black when she realizes her fate is sealed. Vronsky—beautiful, bland Vronsky—maintains his gambling circles and social niceties. And like her reflection in a beveled mirror, Anna breaks. 

By the end of Anna Karenina, Kitty, the formerly scorned, has happily acquiesced to motherhood and estate management, moving among her husband’s serfs with beatitude—and Anna is dead. She now exists in the backstage bowels of the theater-machine to escape censuring eyes, but this is no life for a woman who belongs in the spotlight. In jumping in front of the train, she takes back the last remnants of presence that society denied her. But even in death, Wright shows how autonomy is wrenched back from Anna; as her head and torso are shown almost gracefully, and bloodlessly, splayed on the tracks, the perverse romanticism highlights that her pain has never truly been seen. 

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In terms of 21st century pairings, it is hard to find an actor-director collaboration that rivals Knightley and Wright in terms of thematic continuity, matched sensibilities, and a mutual evolution in storytelling. Knightley’s eight years marked a formidable transformation anchored in carefully crafted yet emotionally rich performances, evolving from the sprightly nonconformist ingenue finding small delights in refusals to the sophisticated socialite who tears down her world and herself. If they do not work together again, Anna Karenina is an apt final form for this pairing, exemplifying the duo’s ability to mine classic stories for richness and relevance built around the smallest observations and details. 

While Berger’s framework is far from the only way to examine their relationship and output, its focus on women’s historical image consciousness and control is telling considering the actress’ deliberate style and affinity for explorations of femininity as well as the director’s similar discipline and aesthetic sensibilities. Their filmography celebrates quiet subversions and mourns those caught in unforgiving circumstances, holding a mirror not only to the leading women but back to the contemporary world.