Should’ve Been a Contender: Keira Knightley for “Atonement” and “Colette”

By Nicole Ackman

Keira Knightley is an incredibly prolific actress, having appeared in forty-seven films since her first in 1995. She has become the go-to girl for period dramas, while still also pursuing roles in contemporary films. Despite her incredible talent and plethora of work, she has only been nominated for an Academy Award twice and has never won. 

Her two nominations are for playing Elizabeth Bennet in “Pride and Prejudice” (2005) and Joan Clarke in “The Imitation Game” (2015). In 2005, she lost the Best Actress award to Reese Witherspoon for “Walk the Line” (2005) and in 2015, Patricia Arquette took the award for Best Supporting Actress for “Boyhood” (2015). Knightley is certainly great in both films, particularly in “Pride and Prejudice,” but I believe that there are other performances of hers that should have been nominated as well. 

antonement
Keira Knightley in Atonement (2007)

In 2007, Knightley returned to work with director Joe Wright to play Cecilia in “Atonement.” She had previously worked with Wright on “Pride and Prejudice” and would later star in his “Anna Karenina” (2012). “Atonement” is an adaptation of the Ian McEwan novel and takes place before the start of and during World War II. It also stars James McAvoy, Romola Garai, Benedict Cumberbatch, and a young Saoirse Ronan

Knightley is nothing short of magnificent as Cecilia, the bold and stylish older daughter of the family who is in love with their housekeeper’s son. Her chemistry with McAvoy is off the charts and it’s clear that Knightley is director Wright’s best muse. She is able to convey so much emotion — hurt, longing, joy — in simple expressions and movements. She is guaranteed to break your heart with this performance.

The film was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Supporting Actress for 13-year-old Saoirse Ronan. And yet, though Knightley was nominated for Best Actress at the Golden Globes and the BAFTAs, she missed the Oscar. While the other actresses nominated that year were surely worthy, it remains perplexing that she wasn’t nominated. 

In 2018, Knightley played the titular role in Wash Westmoreland’s “Colette.” Knightley is always at her best when doing period drama, but her intriguing and strong performance as Colette is her best yet. The film depicts the life of the author and actress and her tumultuous marriage to the author, Willy, played deliciously by Dominic West. Knightley and West have enough chemistry to sell the audience on why they got married in the first place, but the film excels when the two are at odds with each other. 

It’s hard to fathom that an actress as talented as Knightley has no Oscars to her name and only two nominations. She deserved nominations and should have been considered for her performances in “Atonement” and “Colette,” amongst other performances throughout her varied career.

Truthfully though, Knightley is an equally great scene partner to Eleanor Tomlinson and Denise Gough who play two of her lovers. It’s exciting to see a period biopic like this embrace a historical figure’s queer relationships and show them explicitly onscreen, without shying away from them. Scenes with Knightley and Tomlinson together are particularly delightful. 

colette
Keira Knightley in Colette (2018)

The way that Knightley transforms from the meek country girl Gabrielle to the daring Colette, who took pleasure in shocking Parisian society, is incredible. Aided only by her costumes, Knightley changes from a young girl to a woman in front of our eyes through her posture, expressions, and gestures.

Knightley even has the big “Oscar moment” monologue later on in the film, but sadly, generated no Oscar buzz. In fact, she wasn’t nominated at any of the major award shows. It was a competitive race at the Oscars with Glenn Close, Lady Gaga, and Olivia Colman battling it out for the Best Actress award. “Colette” received no Oscar nominations despite positive reviews. 

It’s hard to fathom that an actress as talented as Knightley has no Oscars to her name and only two nominations. She deserved nominations and should have been considered for her performances in “Atonement” and “Colette,” amongst other performances throughout her varied career. Hopefully, she will receive her long-awaited and much deserved Oscar some day in the future.

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