Knightley: Featured Close-Up, Cleopatra

I, like anyone, have certain favorites when it comes to actors in films. Among them for me is the British thespian Keira Knightley. With the exception of last year’s COLLATERAL BEAUTY — a film so bad it not only made her look wooden but hamstrung Edward Norton, another personal favorite, and made Will Smith, charisma machine, seem utterly flat — I can’t think of a performance of hers that I ever felt truly disappointed by. Sure, at times, the movies were not very good, but she always rose above the subject matter in those cases.

With that in mind, I thought going out to check her latest two films — THE NUTCRACKER AND THE FOUR REALMS and COLETTE — would be an interesting study in her talents. Two very different pictures, they called for two very different performances from Knightley. Did she manage to deliver? Were the movies unfolding around her any good? Let’s take a look, shall we?

Knightley: The Princess and the Regents
Mackenzie Foy, Eugenio Derbez, Richard E. Grant, and Keira Knightley survey three of the four Realms (Courtesy of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures)

Keira Knightley Spotlight: THE NUTCRACKER AND THE FOUR REALMS

Despite the name, this take on THE NUTCRACKER story has, more or less, 3% to do with the classic tale. The things they have in common are these: there is a Mouse King, there are tin soldiers, there is a heroic Nutcracker, and at one point viewers are treated to some legitimately well-done ballet.

This is a complete list.

Instead of the familiar, we get a story of a girl, Clara (Mackenzie Foy). She is the middle of three children mourning the loss of their mother. On the first Christmas since her passing, the trio plus their widower father are preparing to head to the event of the season, a ball hosted by the children’s godfather, Drosselmeyer (Morgan Freeman). Before departing, however, the children each receive a gift. Clara’s older sister, Louise (Ellie Bamber), is given their mother’s favorite dress. Fritz (Tom Sweet), the youngest of the family, gets a set of toy soldiers. Clara receives an intricate looking locked metallic egg sans its key and a note that informs her that everything she needs is inside. If you cannot predict that this note has everything to do with Clara’s inner qualities and nothing to do with the inside of the egg, well, perhaps this is your first film.

Knightley: Princess and Sugar Plum
Mackenzie Foy and Keira Knightley get ready for their big reveals (Courtesy of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures)

Into the Realms

The search for the key leads, inevitably, to the Four Realms. There Clara learns that her mom had an inner life, thank you very much, and that included being a queen of this fantasy world. Since her passing left them leaderless — the Realms move much quicker than the real world so a year for us has been quite a bit longer for them — the kingdom has fallen into disarray. Three of the realms — Snow, Sweets, and Flowers — remain aligned. In the Queen’s absence, Hawthorne (Eugenio Derbez), Regent of Flowers; Shiver (Richard E. Grant), Regent of Snow; and Sugar Plum (Keira Knightley), Regent of Sweets, have done their best to maintain the throne

Complicating that goal has apparently been the Fourth Realm — Amusements. That land has seceded from the whole and reaped the consequences. Now nearly barren, dotted only by gnarled trees and banks of fog, it is patrolled by a group of mice who become a writhing mass of rodent bodies called the Mouse King at the drop of a hat. Mother Ginger (Helen Mirren), the former Regent turned enemy of the people, oversees it all from her headquarters. Part the robot maid from SPACEBALLS and part big-top attraction, she stalks the landscape, making promises to lure outsiders to their doom. Evidently, Ginger wishes to invade her three former allies’ kingdoms and become the new Queen.

The Engine — a machine that gives life to toys — stands between Ginger and this goal. With the Engine running, Knightley’s Sugar Plum can raise an army and the Realms stand a chance. Without it? The fantasy kingdom is doomed, Knightley practically purrs.

Of course, not everything is as it seems.

Knightley: Jingles the Horse, the real star
Jayden Fowora-Knight and Mackenzie Foy make those uniforms work (Courtesy of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures)

Emotions Suggested, Not Required

Certain films do a thing where they are clear about the emotions they intend to make you feel but do not seem to be that interested in making the effort to actually earn those feelings. NUTCRACKER is that sort of movie.

The score swells, characters stare at each other dewy-eyed, fathers sit quietly, despondently, alone. People run, speak of honor and courage, and stand alone against evil. The camera pulls back wide, the colors pop, and the buildings loom large. It is all indicative of powerful and profound feelings. The viewer, however, can only recognize what is expected of them. They can never actually honor that expectation and feel those feelings.

In time, even the spectacle becomes stale. With every visit to Mother Ginger’s desiccated land, the artificiality of it becomes more obvious. At first otherworldly, by the final “battle,” the Land of Amusement feels hopelessly cardboard and claustrophobic. It could not feel like more of a movie set than if they filmed it on the backlot of the Universal Studios amusement park.

Knightley: Mother Ginger
Helen Mirren’s complexion is a bit dry (Courtesy of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures)

The Players

It is an oxymoron, certainly, but there is a kind of earnest cynicism that underpins NUTCRACKER. The very existence of the movie is cynical. A NUTCRACKER adaptation in name and one dance only, it nonetheless presents itself as the Christmas tale for marketing purposes. Moreover, it is merchandised to the gills. You may not find an authentic breathtaking moment on-screen, but you sure can pick up an official NUTCRACKER AND THE FOUR REALMS Glade Plug-In.

And yet, nearly all the performances labor under the yoke of guileless earnestness. Foy is a clever girl. We know because the script tells us again and again, despite never showing us. She is intelligent, but, save for one moment, she lacks the kind of slyness and wit that separates “clever” from “smart.” NUTCRACKER, however, seems fearful of allowing its leading lady that whiff of complexity.

Philip, her guide, similarly presents only as loyally earnest — or perhaps it is earnest loyalty — not an ounce of anything else. The closest he gets to interesting is his relationship to one of the mice that feels, possibly, romantic.

Even the Regents — portrayed though they are by Mirren, the good-to-have-back Grant, and the hasn’t-found-an-American-role-worthy-of him-yet Derbez — are hamstrung. As Ginger, Mirren gets to yield a whip, like Vanity Fair told us she could, but there is no similar snap-crack to her performance. Grant, buried literally under ice, gives good voice but the lines fail him. Derbez tries to mug now and then but his collar of flowers creates an actual barrier between himself and the lens, forcing him to be forever too far away from the camera’s gaze.

Knightley: Chillin'
Keira Knightley relaxes in splendor (Courtesy of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures)

But Hark! A Knightley

Ahh, but then there’s Keira Knightley. Although some plot machinations eventually give her Sugar Plum some real teeth, she is delightfully cracked from the jump.

Knightley appears on-screen wrapped in shades of pink, her skin tinctured a shade of purple that still somehow makes her look healthy. Her hair is an honest to God (you’ll note this movie forces you to find a lot of synonyms for “literally”) tangle of cotton candy that she snacks on without ever reducing its bounce or volume. Speaking in a breathy/breathless tone that is Marilyn Monroe by way of Alvin, Simon, and Theodore (doot-doot-doo-doo-doo-doot), Knightley alternates between giggles and gasps with each piece of information she imparts. She seems to be hovering just on the edge of either a panic attack or a manic episode.

The more she is on-screen, the more Knightley begins to shade her performance with a bit of an Eartha Kitt growl and an omnidirectional flirtation that seems both playful and aggressive all at once. Sugar Plum, it seems, likes herself the drums of war in ways beyond the promise of security they represent. In a movie filled with people who are avoiding any hint of sharp edge, Knightley seems to delight in what first appears the light trifle of a character with a gleaming set of fangs.

Knightley: Godfather and Clara
Morgan Freeman and Mackenzie Foy talk keys (Courtesy of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures)

And, Yet…

Knightley’s Sugar Plum cannot elevate an entire movie on her translucent wings. This is especially the case when the movie seems to think sinking into its overly earnest goop is the goal. In much the same way the film’s Rube Goldberg-esque opening in a dirty attic gives way to an artificially clean home, the flick’s promise is quickly drowned in its artificial simulation of emotions. It is the gentle suggestion of human emotions without any attempt to dig into the mess of being human.

Keira Knightley Spotlight Short Take: COLETTE

In contrast to Knightley’s role as Sugar Plum, her performance as Colette here demands a different set of skills. In order to deliver, she must and does take a far weightier, more naturalistic approach to the material.

Beginning in the 1890s, COLETTE chronicles the maturation of Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (Keira Knightley), the woman who would go on to become the most storied and respected woman writer in French history. Living in the country but hungering for the art scene of late-19th century Paris, she finds herself swept up in a love affair with Henry Gauthier-Villars (Dominic West) who very much represents that city and those interests to her. Soon thereafter, they marry and he sweeps her away to the City of Lights. There she finds that her beloved is much less and more than she expected.

Knightley: Suit
Keira Knightley rocks the suit well in COLETTE. (Courtesy of Bleecker Street Media)

Fourteen years her senior, Henry goes by Willy and is trying to establish a writing empire. Think something like James Patterson today — a team of writers delivering books and essays under an esteemed name. They get paid, he gets the notoriety and paid, too. However, he is an unpleasant boss, a reckless spender, and an adulterous scoundrel.

Still, she can handle all that if he just includes her in it all. Instead, he forces her into writing for him for free, misleads her, and is jealous of every bit of success she has — both professional and personal. As she increasingly becomes the actual genius of the couple, he continues to undermine their life together until she can no longer stand it.

Knightley: Willy and Colette
Dominic West and Keira Knightley take in a show. (Courtesy of Bleecker Street Media)

A Profile in Caddishness

Dominic West is an actor who I find consistently frustrating. I know he is talented. Anyone who saw THE WIRE knows this. However, he is consistently greeted with projects below his skill level that it sometimes is hard to remember that.

Here, however, he has found a worthy role. He is a perfect fit for Willy and all his quibbles. West embodies a convincing mix of pretentious blowhard, jealous coward, and wounded child. Throughout, he manages to give heart to an inherently hateable sort of guy. Moreover, he still generates legitimate chemistry with Knightley despite all stacked against him. He does the rare feat of helping us see both why Colette would love him and foreshadow how he will sabotage their partnership.

West’s performance is mirrored in cinematography. As his role in Colette’s life diminishes, so does he. He seemingly shrinks onscreen as Knightley begins to fill the frame more and more. The larger her confidence and ambition grow, the more the camera allows her to literally dominate the landscape.

Knightley: Missy and Colette
Denise Gough and Keira Knightley challenge gender roles in a scene from COLETTE. (Courtesy of Bleecker Street Media)

Polyamory, Gender Roles, and Onstage Nudity OR The Past Liberals Want

One of the delights of COLETTE is how it mines the author’s life story to highlight her progressiveness. Colette feels both very of our time and weirdly revolutionary in her views of sex, sexuality, and gender. Unapologetically bisexual from nearly the beginning and disinterested in monogamy as a measure of a relationship’s success, she becomes a sort of proto-advocate for gender queerism. She has to push back against many societal factors, but her commitment to being open-minded and accepting seemingly comes effortlessly.

The way in which Knightley portrays her as eminently adaptable adds to this perspective. She expresses her desire to have sex with women for her own enjoyment. She asserts that her lover is to be referred to by the preferred masculine pronouns some 150 or so years before the present day, when people still react in horror to the very idea of it. Moreover, she does it all with a matter-of-fact forcefulness. There is no sense of her having to “grow” to accept notions of sex, gender identity, sexuality, artistic expression, and so on outside the mainstream. She takes each encounter on its own merits. She only balks at cowardice, dishonesty, and hypocrisy. This is especially acute when her husband attempts to wield them to justify his actions and punish hers.

Often historical anachronisms bother me, but I found in my research that everything seems accurate. Moreover, Knightley makes each moment make sense. Her ease with the character disarms any concern a viewer may have about dramatic license.

Knightley: The Joy of Sapphic Love
Eleanor Tomlinson and Keira Knightley find this kiss, this kiss, unstoppable in a scene from COLETTE. (Courtesy of Bleecker Street Media)

A Biopic Worthy of a Watch

As I have gotten older, my enjoyment and appreciation of biopics, especially period biopics, has dropped precipitously. COLETTE is the rare film that overcomes this personal malaise. Skillful cinematography, excellent performances, and a willingness not to sanitize things are all to the good in this effort.

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