1. Pride and Prejudice (2005)

IMDB Rating: 7.8/10
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 86%

Storyline

Pride and Prejudice follows the five unmarried Bennet sisters who live in the countryside of 19th century England. Knightley steps into the shoes of Elizabeth Bennet, the second eldest sister, whose world is turned upside down when a wealthy gentleman named Mr. Darcy comes into town. The story focuses on themes of love, reputation, and class, exploring the societal constraints faced by women during that time.

Why it’s a Major Performance

Knightley received numerous accolades for her strong portrayal of Elizabeth Bennet, a character plagued by societal biases. Her nuanced and mature performance in the film was particularly impressive considering she was only 20 at the time of filming. Her charisma and intellectual prowess shone through in the character, infusing Elizabeth with a captivating blend of wit and allure.

Knightley’s performance in this film was so incredibly well-received that it earned her an Oscar nomination for Best Actress. Critics praised her for bringing a fresh and dynamic dimension to the character that was distinct from the many previous screen adaptations of this classic literary figure. Her talent also infused Elizabeth with a gusty spirit, vocalizing the feminist observations laced throughout Jane Austen’s novel.

2. Atonement (2007)

IMDB Rating: 7.8/10
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 83%

Storyline

Set on the eve of World War II in England, Atonement is a tragic tale of a misconstrued series of events that lead to the destruction of young love. Knightley portrays the character of Cecilia Tallis, an upper-class woman in love with Robbie Turner, the housekeeper’s son. Their budding romance is torn apart through a fabricated story told by Cecilia’s younger sister.

Why it’s a Major Performance

In Atonement, Knightley effortlessly portrays the fierce and tragic Cecilia Tallis. Her performance is full of nuance and depth, as she successfully communicates the agony and despair of her character’s thwarted love story. This role is a departure from Knightley’s earlier images of naive young women, showcasing her range as an actress and her ability to take on more mature roles.

Knightley’s chemistry with co-star James McAvoy is palpable and her embodiment of the heartbroken Cecilia ensures a haunting and emotionally investing watch for audiences. Critics noted her evolution of her character, reflecting the transformation and learning of a woman. Knightley’s portrayal of Cecilia Tallis remains one of her most critically acclaimed performances, proving her mettle as one of the finest actors of her generation.

3. The Imitation Game (2014)

IMDB Rating: 8.0/10
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 90%

Storyline

The Imitation Game is a biographical film about the life of Alan Turing, a British cryptanalyst who decoded Nazi messages during World War II and was later punished for being homosexual. Knightley stars as Joan Clarke, an intelligent, strong woman who forms an unconventional relationship with Turing, becoming his confidante and ally.

Why it’s a Major Performance

Knightley provides a pivotal performance as Joan Clarke, a woman navigating a man’s world with grace, intelligence, and sensitivity. She effectively portrays the deeply complex character of Joan, offering a female perspective in a predominantly male-centric narrative. Her portrayal is an emotional anchor in the film, counterbalancing Turing’s stiff exterior with warmth and vulnerability.

Her performance in this role earned her a second Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress. Knightley’s portrayal of Joan Clarke showed her ability to breathe life into historical characters, adding another feather to her extensive oeuvre. Critics praised her for offering a quiet yet strong presence in the film, standing out even amidst a cast full of veteran performers.

4. Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003)

IMDB Rating: 8.0/10
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 79%

Storyline

In this swashbuckling adventure, Elizabeth Swann is played by Knightley who gets tangled up with pirate Jack Sparrow in search of the cursed Black Pearl. As the governor’s daughter, Elizabeth Swann is far from the typical damsel in distress, proving herself to be courageous throughout their adventures.

Why it’s a Major Performance

Pirates of the Caribbean marked a turning point in Knightley’s career, presenting her as a strong, young woman capable of handling mature and physically demanding roles. Despite her tender age, Knightley managed to stand out in a cast full of seasoned actors, holding her own in high-intensity action sequences and delivering an energetic performance.

Knightley’s portrayal of Elizabeth Swann provided young girls around the world with a strong and independent female role model. Over the course of the franchise, Elizabeth evolves from a governor’s daughter to a pirate queen – a transformation that Knightley expertly navigated, resulting in an iconic and beloved film character that marked a high point in her career.

5. Anna Karenina (2012)

IMDB Rating: 6.6/10
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 64%

Storyline

Set in late-19th-century Russian high society, the aristocrat Anna Karenina enters into a life-changing affair with the affluent Count Vronsky. Knightley portrays Anna Karenina, a woman who is led by her heart in a society where adultery is unacceptable, resulting in dire consequences for her and her loved ones.

Why it’s a Major Performance

Knightley’s role as Anna Karenina is a major feat in her acting career, delivering an intense and emotionally extravagant performance that demands total attention. She successfully showcases the complexity of Anna’s character, oscillating between sensuous romanticism and profound sorrow, bringing out the depth and layers of the character.

This marked her third collaboration with director Joe Wright, and critics praised Knightley’s emotional and brave portrayal of Anna Karenina. From a loving wife and mother to an adulteress ostracized by society, Knightley’s transformation in her character was hauntingly real, marking a highly praised performance in her eminent filmography.

6. Colette (2018)

IMDB Rating: 6.7/10
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 87%

Storyline

Knightley stars as Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, a talented author who fights to make her talent known in the shadow of her manipulative and control-freak husband. The film traces the journey of Colette’s rise from a country girl to one of the best-known authors in France.

Why it’s a Major Performance

Knightley’s extraordinary performance as Colette is another testament to her exceptional aptitude for portraying historical figures. She captures the fiery spirit and tenacity of Colette, showcasing her character’s resilience and bravery in fighting for her own identity and rights in the male-dominated society of the late 19th and early 20th century.

Knightley navigates the evolving facets of Colette’s personality with grace, displaying a deep understanding of her subject’s complex nature. Critics applauded her dramatic range and powerful performance. Knightley took on the role not just with full conviction but with an insightful perspective that breathed a breath of fresh air into the biographical genre.

7. Begin Again (2013)

IMDB Rating: 7.4/10
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 83%

Storyline

In Begin Again, Knightley plays Gretta, a singer-songwriter who has just moved to New York and gets the chance to work with a washed-up record label executive. Her character deals with heartbreak following a break up with her long-term boyfriend whilst rediscovering her love for music.

Why it’s a Major Performance

Knightley steps out of her period-drama comfort zone in Begin Again and delivers a performance that is thoroughly modern and relatable. She showcases her singing talent in this film and gives a profound performance of a woman hurt by love but finding her feet in the world again.

Knightley’s portrayal of Gretta was applauded for being humorously sweet, relatably fallible, and consistently engaging. The way she infused her character with vulnerability lent gravitas to the emotional narrative. Her performance was a refreshing change for both audiences and critics and greatly appreciated.

8. The Duchess (2008)

IMDB Rating: 6.9/10
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 61%

Storyline

The Duchess tells the story of Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire, who was famous for her beauty and wit but held an unhappy marital life. Knightley brings this complex historical character to life, portraying her various trials and tribulations.

Why it’s a Major Performance

Knightley depicts the character’s emotional journey with proficiency, revealing the inner strength and resilience of a woman stuck in an unfulfilling marriage. She inaugurates dimensions of the character that are deeply touching and reflective of the rules women had to abide by in society at the time.

Described as an exceptional role in her career, her performance was praised for its emotional depth and authenticity. Knightley’s portrayal of the Duchess was vivid, expressive, and emotionally powerful, crafting a living, breathing woman out of a figure from history, earning her numerous praises.

9. Never Let Me Go (2010)

IMDB Rating: 7.1/10
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 71%

Storyline

Never Let Me Go is a sci-fi drama where Knightley plays the character of Ruth, one of the students at a mysterious boarding school where children are raised to be organ donors. Her performance reflects the struggle to understand and accept the cruel reality of their existence.

Why it’s a Major Performance

Knightley perfectly personifies the antagonist Ruth with a striking combination of jealousy, desperate longing for love, and existential dread. Her portrayal of a woman struggling with despair and deception is deeply touching, making the character both interesting and relatable.

Her character in Never Let Me Go is far more complex than any of her previous characters and Knightley rises to the challenge, displaying an immense amount of depth and vulnerability. Critics acclaimed her performance as a major breakthrough in her career, living the life of her character gracefully with a blend of emotion and slight desperateness.

10. Bend It Like Beckham (2002)

IMDB Rating: 6.6/10
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 85%

Storyline

In this coming-of-age comedy-drama, Knightley plays Jules Paxton, an ambitious young footballer struggling to conform to her mother’s stereotypical views of femininity. This light-hearted, empowering film was one of Knightley’s breakthrough roles and catapulted her to international fame.

Why it’s a Major Performance

Knightley captures the essence of the ambitious and cheerful Jules, challenging gender norms with her passion for football. Her performance in this movie set the pace for her subsequent strong female roles. Knightley successfully manages to communicate the struggles a young woman faces when defying societal expectations.

Despite being one of her earliest roles, Knightley’s acting skills were widely praised. She was commended for playing a strong, inspiring character while retaining the sensitivity and vulnerability of a young girl coming of age. Her role in Bend It Like Beckham set the precedent for her career as Hollywood’s go-to actress for independent, fiery heroines.