Is the ‘End of the World’ a New Beginning for Keira Knightley?

Keira Knightley, with Steve Carell in the background in 'Seeking a Friend for the End of the World' (Darren Michaels/Focus Features)

Before she turned 21, Keira Knightley had already been nominated for an Oscar for Best Actress for her role as Elizabeth Bennet in the 2005 movie version of Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice.

That role, along with her appearances in the first three blockbuster Pirates of the Caribbean films, catapulted the English actress to the front rank of Hollywood as The Next Big Thing – briefly.

Today (June 22), Knightley will open in Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, an appealing apocalyptic romance in which she co-stars with Steve Carell. They play a seemingly mismatched pair who becomes friendly as the planet awaits a cataclysmic collision with a giant asteroid.

The low-budget, small scale film is likely to win favorable reviews, as will Knightley for her engaging performance as a free-spirited, old vinyl LP-loving Brit. She gets to show off her range with both comic and dramatic scenes and the film neatly avoids both excessive sentiment and turning cute.

If Knightley is lucky, End of the World will prove a hit. She could use one. Her most recent films, including A Dangerous Method (2011) and Never Let Me Go (2010), were strictly art house ventures and her performances in them polarized critics. Several of her other recent films, including London Boulevard and Last Night, were barely released in the U.S. or were available only through video on demand.

All were smaller movies. After flirting with Hollywood and getting a taste of what it had to offer with the Pirates films, King Arthur (2004) and Domino (2005), Knightley seems to have made a conscious choice to work primarily in indies, art house and European fare. Call it taking the Nicole Kidman route.

Keira Knightley discusses her career ambitions and staying in London in an interview last February on the Jonathan Ross Show:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=npMMXv0TVUM

Her next movie, opening Nov. 9, has a prestigious pedigree and is already spurring talk of another Oscar nomination. Knightley plays the title role in Anna Karenina, yet another film version of the Tolstoy novel – playwright Tom Stoppard has done the adaptation this time – about a woman who chooses passion over convention in the 1800s. Greta Garbo, fellow Brit Vivien Leigh and Sophie Marceau are among the actresses who have played the adulterous heroine in earlier film versions.

The movie marks a reunion for Knightley with British director Joe Wright, who elicited two of her strongest performances, in Pride & Prejudice and in Atonement (2007). Here’s hoping the third time remains charmed.

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