Dear Keira Knightley

Art & Culture

Dear Keira Knightley,

When people say rude things about you, I want you to know that I always stick up for you, and point out that although you have been in about 40 films, you are still only 27, and are still on a learning curve.

So I hope you will bear that in mind if I venture to make a few comments which are less than completely flattering. For example, although you look beautiful in still photos, as the picture above illustrates, this doesn't always translate onto the big screen, when you are required to talk and move and pretend to be someone else. What looks smooth and untroubled in repose, becomes more angular and awkward when set in motion. I suspect this slight gawkiness may be intentional, but there's also rather too much jaw action; a relaxed facial posture might be more appealing.

The key thing about being a film star is being likeable, although of course there are exceptions. And my concern is that though you are always much in demand, you don't seem to win over the public as you ought to. And although you're a much better actress than you were, and certainly better than you are given credit for, you have yet to make the transition to womanhood. Not just because you have the body of a model (though it doesn't help) but because you don't seem at ease in yourself.

One of the most remarkable things about your career is that apart from the Pirates of the Caribbean series – from which you have now disappeared – you have not featured in any films that could be regarded as commercial hits – and even you might admit that POTC's success has more to do with Johnny Depp than you. And yet the work keeps coming. Life is full of mysteries. Enough generalisations, let's get down to specific films.

Clearly you are seen as someone who can carry a costume drama – so far, you've done Pride & Prejudice, King Arthur (as an improbable warrior Guinevere), Dr Zhivago, Atonement, Edge of Love, Silk, The Duchess, A Dangerous Method and the upcoming Anna Karenina (of which more anon). In fact, given that Pirates is a costume film, as is Star Wars, you could say you've done rather more of them than contemporary movies, which is just as well, since London Boulevard, Domino and Last Night were conspicuous by the complete absence of any audience interested in seeing them.

Comparisons are odious, but inevitable. If we consider other British actresses in your age range, it is very instructive. Carey Mulligan, (who appeared with you in P & P and Never Let Me Go), Felicity Jones and Rosamund Pike (also your sister in P & P) are all more universally admired than you, and all of them seem more like real human beings. Yet you are more famous and get higher profile roles. However, there is a contender for the KK crown of Top Young British Actress and that is Emily Blunt. And here the comparisons are really interesting. Emily is naturally good at comedy – which is not your forte – she is easily paired with the likes of Ewan McGregor, Matt Damon and Jason Segel, and with a body shape that is less clothes horse and more expansive. And they certainly seem keener on her in Hollywood.

I mentioned Tolstoy's masterpiece in which you will be starring as the eponymous heroine. And I have to admit that I have concerns about the casting. I have never imagined Anna Karenina as resembling you in any way, though that may be my shortsightedness, and perhaps I will be proved wrong. She is a wife and mother of a young child, and that is not something that I associate you with. It's only a couple of years since you were a fairly plausible teenager in Never Let Me Go. I suspect matters won't be helped by the casting of Aaron Johnson as your lover Vronsky and Jude Law as your nasty husband.

Despite everything I've said, you clearly have something going for you that makes directors want to cast you as their star. It's not because your name above the title guarantees critical or commercial success; it's not because you make men want to throw themselves in front of trains because of unrequited love; it's not because you're the finest actress of your generation with Oscar nominations by the thousand; it's not because you epitomise the girl next door, or the sexiest woman alive, or a good sport. So what is it?

I think it's that very gaucheness, the slight awkwardness, the classic beauty with a jaw that's almost too big, an ugly duckling most of the way towards perfect swandom, but not quite there yet. In the same way, your characters have a tentativeness that's endearing, as if they're not entirely sure about themselves, lacking that complete self-confidence that others possess. You are unformed, and that fact makes you unique.

By Phil Raby

Front Row Films

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