The Best Keira Knightley Movies Ranked

Keira Knightley is the queen of the past — she is probably the one name most associated with period films over the last 20 years. In fact, it's easy to forget that Knightley is only 36, as she has both been acting for so long and also played brides in two movies ("Love Actually" and "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl") while still aged just 17. 

While historical films, especially romantic ones, are very much Knightley's specialty, she has broken out into contemporary-set films more and more. But we will always associate her with British characters with stiff upper lips, cut-glass accents, and fabulous costumes — and there is nothing wrong with that. 

Knightley is particularly comfortable in 20th-century period films. As recently as 2019, she starred in a World War II romance, "The Aftermath," that was actually pretty decent. You can trace pretty much every decade of the 20th century through Knightley's movies, starting with "Colette," which takes place in the 1900s, and ending with "Never Let Me Go," set in the 1990s. 

Here are 14 of Keira Knightley's best movies, ranked.

14. The Edge of Love

There are two films on this list that are romances set during the Second World War, and while this one does not reach the lofty heights of "Atonement," it is still enjoyable enough. "The Edge of Love" is a highly fictionalized account of Welsh poet Dylan Thomas' life during WWII. Knightley plays Vera Phillips, who grew up with Thomas (Matthew Rhys). In real life, they were more like cousins, but here, they are old lovers and when they meet again in London their feelings are rekindled. Thomas is married to Caitlin (Sienna Miller), and the film implies that both she and Dylan have many extramarital affairs. 

Cillian Murphy plays William, a soldier who Vera reluctantly marries despite knowing that she will likely lose him. However, Vera and Dylan are so closely entwined that they end up sharing a pair of cottages on the same plot of land in Wales. Vera and Caitlin become very close, caring for each other's children while Vera helps the Thomases financially. When a traumatized William returns from the war, he drunkenly starts shooting at the Thomases' home in a jealous rage, something that actually happened in real life

While Vera and Caitlin don't get much of a personality beyond being in love with Dylan (the real-life Vera was a sculptor, trained by Henry Moore), the acting is strong and period romance fans will be entertained enough.

13. Misbehaviour

This underseen British film from 2020 is based on a true story with a mildly political element and an ensemble cast, in a similar vein to "Brassed Off," "Made in Dagenham," and "Pride." It is set during the 1970 Miss World competition, when a group of women from the "Women's Lib Movement" plan to protest and disrupt the contest. 

1970 also happens to be the first time that a Black woman — Miss Grenada (played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw) — won the contest. The film does quite a good job of exploring the dichotomy between white feminism and the reality of being a Black woman who is trying to be a pioneer and role model in some way, even if it's within a flawed system. 

Knightley plays Sally Alexander, a woman who is trying to juggle being a wife, mother and law student, and her husband is pretty progressive for the time. It also stars Jessie Buckley, Rhys Ifans and Keeley Hawes, as well as Greg Kinnear as Bob Hope and Lesley Manville as his wife, Dolores. It's an interesting story that isn't oversimplified or forced into being "feel-good," as there are no real winners or losers on either side. It's a real, and therefore complicated, moment in the history of feminism.

12. Begin Again

Like writer-director John Carney's other films, "Once" and "Sing Street," "Begin Again" is a movie that makes music an integral part of the plot. On the surface, it seems very much like a rom-com — it even has James Corden playing a supporting character — but, refreshingly, it's actually not a romance. 

Gretta (Knightley) befriends music executive Dan (Mark Ruffalo) and his daughter Violet (Hailee Steinfeld), and they make an album together in different outdoor locations in New York one summer. The movie even features a scene where Gretta and Dan spend a night wandering the city, listening to music and baring their souls to each other, but it still doesn't become romantic. Instead, "Begin Again" is about Gretta moving away from her crappy boyfriend (amusingly played by Adam Levine), and Dan finding his way back to his estranged wife (Catherine Keener). 

Carney made some pretty scathing comments about Knightley after he made this, but she does her own singing and guitar-playing, and it's nice to see a different side to her.

11. Colette

Colette is another complicated real-life figure from history on Keira Knightley's credits list. Colette was the wife of "literary entrepreneur" Willy (Dominic West), who used ghostwriters to create articles for him. Constantly in dire financial straits, he tells Colette to write a book about her school days as a last resort. When he publishes it under his own name, it becomes an unexpected best-seller. 

An obviously dissatisfied Colette seeks comfort in Southern belle Georgie (Eleanor Tomlinson) and Missy (played by the excellent Denise Gough), who dresses in suits that only men wore at the time. Both of these affairs obviously provoke scandal, especially when Collette writes about them in one of her books and makes them part of a stage act at the Moulin Rouge. 

It is probably unsurprising that the costume design is a real highlight of "Colette." The frustrating part of the film is that it arguably finishes just as the real-life story gets interesting, when Colette divorces Willy and starts publishing books under own name. Maybe Knightley could return to the role in 20 years' time to finish the tale.

10. The Duchess

"The Duchess" provides another historical figure for Knightley to play — this time, Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, an ancestor of Princess Diana. At the age of 17, Georgiana marries the Duke of Devonshire (Ralph Fiennes) and is immediately set to the task of producing an heir. When she produces two daughters, things sour between the couple. Georgiana befriends Bess Foster (Hayley Atwell) and she moves into one of the Devonshires' palatial homes, so the duke naturally begins an affair with her. Meanwhile, Georgiana is in love with wannabe Prime Minister Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper), but due to the double standards of the time is not allowed to have an affair, especially not before she produces a male heir. 

Georgiana was known for trend-setting wherever she went and was something of a Marie Antoinette figure, so her costumes and hats are fabulous. A highlight is a foxtail-festooned hat she wears to support politician Mr. Fox (Simon McBurney). 

"The Duchess" was released in the same year as "The Edge of Love" and features a similar dynamic between the central trio, with Georgiana and Bess eventually reaching a peaceful arrangement and the two of them living with the duke. Knightley does well playing the character over many years, torn between her lover and her children.

9. The Nutcracker and the Four Realms

Moving from real-life historical figures to high-fantasy, "The Nutcracker and the Four Realms" is definitely a departure for Knightley. She plays a kind of fairy godmother role at first, guiding the protagonist Clara (Mackenzie Foy) through a magical land. As the Sugar Plum Fairy, Knightley has fabulous purple cotton candy hair, a glittery layered dress, and a high, girlish voice. 

But — spoiler alert — it turns out that the Sugar Plum Fairy isn't as sweet as she first appears. In fact, she's the villain of the piece. It's great to see Knightley taking on this kind of role at this stage in her career, and it's in a similar vein to Angelina Jolie in "Maleficent," Charlize Theron in the "Snow Queen," or Cate Blanchett as the Evil Stepmother in "Cinderella." The Sugar Plum Fairy's nemesis is Mother Ginger (Helen Mirren, who also sinks her teeth into the role with aplomb). 

It goes without saying that the production and costume design are fabulously rich and detailed, and while it is obviously CGI-heavy, Victorian fantasies are always an enjoyable place to spend time in (see also: "Alice in Wonderland" and "Jingle Jangle"). I would love to see Knightley taking on more fun roles like this, especially since much of her career has been made up of serious work.

8. Anna Karenina

Keira Knightley has been something of a muse for director Joe Wright, working with him three times. "Anna Karenina" is the least critically-acclaimed of their collaborations, with many people outright hating the decisions made in this adaptation of a literary classic. 

However, some of us think the theatrical framing device and anachronisms really work. Wright sets the whole film in a theatre, giving the characters a sense of the performative throughout, and the scene transitions have the fluid feel of sets coming in and out the frame. Extras dress members of the main cast onscreen — we see costume changes and set changes happen as part of scenes, all carefully choreographed, as if part of a dance. All parts of the theatre are used, including the rafters, backstage, and below stage areas, depending on whether scenes are public or private occasions. 

Matthew Macfadyen, Jude Law, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson play the magnificently-mustachioed men in Anna's life, and Knightley does a fantastic job in the title role. It is this film, more than any other, that makes me very excited for Wright's "Cyrano," which will be released later this year.

7. Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End

The original "Pirates of the Caribbean" trilogy, directed by Gore Verbinski and released between 2003 and 2007, is a great example of blockbuster filmmaking (and we don't acknowledge that Disney made any more "Pirates of the Caribbean" films). While all three films are overlong, Verbinski created compelling characters who we wanted to follow and some of the finest CGI creature designs ever committed to film. The skeletal pirate crew of "The Curse of the Black Pearl" and Davy Jones (and his crew) in "Dead Man's Chest" hold up today as thrilling and fascinating CGI characters. 

The standard of the trilogy is so high that it's extremely difficult to choose which one is the best of the three. Perhaps surprisingly, I've settled on "At World's End" for several reasons. Firstly, it includes a healthy dose of Bill Nighy's Davy Jones and his wonderful hybrid sea creature-human crew. Next, it sees Knightley's Elizabeth Swann fully evolve from a damsel-in-distress to both the captain of a ship and the Pirate King. It's also, without doubt, the weirdest.

Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) finds himself in a limbo between the living and dead worlds; Elizabeth, Will (Orlando Bloom), and Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) travel to — and fall off — the ends of the earth; and Elizabeth and Will get married during a battle ... in a maelstrom. 

Swann is probably Knightley's best-known character, and while she's mostly avoided big-budget fare since, there are certainly worse franchises and characters that she could be associated with.

6. Pride and Prejudice

For those of us who have a powerful connection to Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth in the BBC's "Pride & Prejudice," it took some time to accept Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen in Wright's version. For some reason, the hairstyles are stupendously bad in this adaptation, but it does have much to recommend it, not least Tom Hollander waxing lyrical about boiled potatoes. 

There are three main standout scenes from this film that fill the hearts of romance fans everywhere to bursting: the famous hand flex that Darcy does after briefly holding Lizzie's hand, the rain-soaked first proposal scene, and the final stride across a misty field at dawn, leading to these two infuriating characters finally getting out of their own way and admitting how they feel. Macfadyen's lost-puppy blue eyes contrast brilliantly with Knightley's large, but steadfast, brown ones. 

Dario Marianelli's score is a large part of what makes this version so good, especially in the aforementioned climactic scene. The casting of Brenda Blethyn and Donald Sutherland as Lizzie's parents is especially excellent, even if the Bennet sisters are a bit of a letdown. Anyway, we are here for Lizzie and Darcy, and Knightley and Macfadyen sell the central romance very well.

5. Laggies

"Laggies" is one of the few U.S.-set movies that Knightley has made in which she actually plays an American. The late and great Lynn Shelton directed this tale of a near-30-year-old woman in arrested development who befriends a teenage girl named Annika (Chloe Grace Moretz). Megan (Knightley) tells her new fiancé that she's attending a seminar, but actually ends up spending a week with Annika and her dad, Craig (Sam Rockwell). The ever-charming Kaitlyn Dever plays one of Annika's friends.

The surprising chemistry between Knightley and Rockwell is what really makes this movie — the plot and characters shouldn't work, but Andrea Seigel's funny and empathetic script sells the improbable scenario. Craig is a divorce lawyer, and the scene of him cross-examining Megan about why she is in his house is probably the highlight of the film. 

Since 2010, Knightley has made more modern-day films, including "Seeking a Friend for the End of the World" with Steve Carrell and "Begin Again" with Mark Ruffalo. While it would be great to see her with more male co-stars who are not 15 to 20 years older than her, it is gratifying to see Knightley branching out into a wider variety of roles.

4. A Dangerous Method

Between 2005 and 2011, David Cronenberg directed three features in a row starring Viggo Mortensen. The first two were modern thrillers. The third, "A Dangerous Method," was something quite different. Mortensen plays Sigmund Freud and Michael Fassbender plays Carl Jung in this exploration of the birth of psychoanalysis. 

Knightley gives what is possibly her best performance as Sabina, a woman who is initially treated by Jung, then studies and works with him as an assistant even as Jung starts a sexual relationship with her. Jung and Freud have a fractious relationship and frequently clash over their approaches to psychoanalysis. As with "Colette" (which is set during the same period), we don't get to see that Sabina ultimately became one of the first women psychoanalysts and trained other analysts herself. 

However, what we do see is fascinating, especially in the context of Cronenberg's other work. Knightley brings a never-before-seen physicality to the role, and it looks as if it was one of the biggest challenges of her career.

3. Bend It Like Beckham

This smash-hit comedy launched Knightley's career, even though she was only playing a supporting role. Jess (Parminder Nagra of "ER") and Pinky (Archie Punjabi of "The Good Wife") are sisters. One is soccer mad, and one is about to get married. Jess' family do not approve of her soccer-playing, so when she joins a local girls' team, she has to hide it from them. 

The team's sexy Irish coach (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) causes some tension and jealousy between Jess and her new best friend Jules (Knightley). One of the highlights of "Bend It Like Beckham" is Juliet Stevenson as Jules' mother, who gets probably the funniest line: "Take your lesbian feet out of my shoes!" 

Director Gurinder Chadha does a great job of juggling all of the many elements of the film, which come to a head with Pinky's wedding being — you guessed it — at the exact same time as an important final match with an American scout in attendance

"Bend It Like Beckham" was one of the best comedies of the 2000s, and it's a great coming-of-age film. It's kind of ironic that this athletic role launched Knightley's career, as she went on to be synonymous with the wilting English rose type. Still, it's fun to revisit her star-making turn; however, Nagra should have had the same career trajectory, too.

2. Never Let Me Go

If you're ever looking for a film to sob pretty much the whole way through, look no further than "Never Let Me Go." Based on the book by Kazuo Ishiguro, it follows three children at an orphanage and boarding school who are destined to only have young lives. The film is set in an alternate version of the past where those at the bottom of the social hierarchy are destined to become organ donors so that (presumably rich) people can live past 100. 

Once the children leave school, they are played by Knightley, Carey Mulligan, and Andrew Garfield, and are in a love triangle. They are naive and still believe the rumors they heard at school, which say that proving that they are in love will lead to their salvation by a mysterious institution known as "the Gallery." 

"Never Let Me Go" is an incredibly strange film, but works so well because we are not given a lot of exposition. Something feels "off" about the world, but Mulligan, Knightley, and Garfield still play humans with emotions, however much the characters try to shut them off. It's absolutely devastating, and has an incredible score by Rachel Portman (who also scored "The Duchess") — it is definitely one of those films that will make you question what it means to be human.

1. Atonement

"Atonement" is perhaps the quintessential Keira Knightley film. Starting in a stately home in the 1930s, it tells the love story between Cecilia (Knightley) and Robbie (James McAvoy), two people who have very different social statuses, but have grown up together nonetheless. Cecelia's younger sister Briony (a young Saoirse Ronan) sparks a chain of events that separates the lovers. WWII also pulls them in different directions. 

An incredible one-shot sequence that follows Robbie at Dunkirk forms the centerpiece of "Atonement." The whole film is framed as a memoir being told by Briony, but we know from seeing her as a young girl that she has a vivid imagination and blends reality and fiction, making it hard to trust everything we're being told. It is a film about truth and lies, but ultimately, the war does more damage than Briony ever could. 

And of course, "Atonement" features one of the most iconic costumes of all time: Knightley's green dress. This is another tragic love story set in the past for Knightley, which tends to be her specialty. If you love period romances (as I do), then it is likely that you have seen a lot of Knightley films. She has found her niche, and she excels at it.