Keira Knightley reunites with her Pride & Prejudice director Joe Wright for Atonement, a dramatic period piece based on the novel by Ian McEwan. Knightley plays Cecilia Tallis, the beautiful, intelligent daughter of a wealthy family whose affection for Robbie Turner (James McAvoy), the son of her family’s housekeeper, sparks jealousy in her younger sister which ultimately leads to a horribly tragic series of events.
Keira Knightley doesn’t pick her projects based on whether they’re large studio movies or independent films. She does mix things up, but it’s not all part of a master plan. “I should think, because it would be very savvy, business-wise of me to go, ‘Yes, I’m going to do this, and then I’m going to do a big one.’ But I can’t think like that. It has to be what interests me at the time. I think there is a brilliant place for entertainment for entertainment’s sake. I think it’s completely wonderful to go to the cinema and see a complete ride and enjoy your popcorn and have a great time. And sometime when I’m in the mood, I will find a script and that’s exactly what I’ll do. I think it is partly because Pirates did take such a long time, and I was within that for such a long time, that I’ve just craved something that’s different. For me, the point of acting has been to change, as much as possible, and I’ve been very fortunate to be able to do that.”
So far, Knightley’s been able to balance the big-budgeted movies with smaller projects. Making the transition from a Pirates atmosphere to indie fare is a matter of, according to Knightley, adjusting her speed. “You have less time to do things, which I like, actually. You do something like Pirates, which is obviously technical - it’s about explosions, it’s about action - and that, as everybody will tell you, takes a long time to get right. When you’re doing something like Atonement, you have less time to do it. You have less money, so you have to do it quicker. But, it’s a much more intense working experience which, I think, for any actor, is what you’re looking for because you want to be living in that moment. It’s the excitement of finding those emotions. On your big, explosive films, the film set is quite a technical space, as it should be. But on a film like Atonement, the space was very much the actors’, which was enjoyable. Absolutely.”
Knightley credits Ian McEwan’s incredible gift for storytelling with helping her understand and get into her character. “The book was incredibly helpful in making this film. What Ian McEwan does brilliantly are these incredible internal monologues for each of the characters, which I think might have had something to do with why people always said this is an unfilmable novel. But, as far as playing it, it was incredibly helpful because it constantly meant that you knew exactly where your character was coming from. If they were behaving badly, as mine sort of is at the beginning of the film, you understand why. You understand why they’re slightly on edge and why they make decisions that, perhaps, aren’t the right decisions. So, a lot of it came from the book.”
Let's face it - 2007 hasn’t been the best year for actresses in Hollywood. The films with strong, interesting female leads have been few and far between. Knightley says it’s hard to find a script with a character as well-written and fleshed out as Cecilia in Atonement. “It’s very difficult to find good characters in films, particularly female characters. There aren’t that many. A lot of the time actresses get critiqued on the fact that the roles just aren’t there. So, what you often try to do is really take something out of the page that certainly isn’t written on it. With this, it was there. It was very much there - in the book and in the script. I was incredibly lucky to get the part.”
“What was fascinating about it to me is that you’ve got this character… Quite often we have characters that are very black or white. They’re good or they’re bad, and these ones aren’t. They’ve got layers to them. I think that she is a good person, but she’s just behaving badly. She’s got very obvious flaws in her personality that are not particularly nice traits, but that still doesn’t mean that she’s a bad person. I think it’s always interesting to look at the flaws because that’s what makes characters, and people, interesting. You want to have negative aspects, so that you can look at the positive as well. I think that she’s a fascinating character.”
Knightley found the experience of working on Atonement challenging, which is exactly what she wants from her work. However one scene in particular did stand apart from the rest as particularly difficult. “The one that I found, perhaps, most challenging was the scene in the Swallows Tea Shop, when they haven’t seen each other for five years and they see each other again, but it’s also my favorite,” revealed Knightley. “If you did that in a modern day piece, they’d be able to say exactly what they wanted to say to each other. It would all come out, and it would be rather melodramatic. And the fact that they can’t find the words and they can’t speak to each other, suddenly this time that they’ve been separate, even though they’ve been writing all the time and they’ve been waiting, and she’s sacrificed so much and he’s been in jail, it suddenly becomes a physical thing between them. They suddenly realize that they don’t know each other anymore. It was always my favorite scene, between Robbie and Cecilia, when I read the script. But it was difficult because you have to know, I suppose, the emotions that they would be going through but you can’t play them. It was a really interesting exercise in keeping the lid on everything, which I have to say the whole film was. It’s all about what isn’t said.”