Granted, “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End” is a loud, raucous installment from a hugely expensive franchise based on an amusement-park ride and “Bend It Like Beckham” is a dollar-scraping, charming indie sleeper romantic comedy whose only action scenes take place on soccer fields. What the two films share, though, is the beauty with the mega-watt smile elbowing her way into the center of each film, Keira Knightley. The two films chart Knightley’s rise from British indie sensation to Hollywood stardom. To the dazzling star, it may seem like a career rollercoaster, raising the question of whether this latest film shows her at the dizzying height of the ride, or plummeting through the lowest dip? Which film does Knightley owe her career to?
If the first installment of “Pirates of the Caribbean” belonged to Orlando Bloom, and the second to Johnny Depp, this latest offering is the property of Keira Knightley, with a nod to Geoffrey Rush. This time out, her damsel is given more action and more depth. She is, at different times in the story, rescuer, ship’s Captain, main love interest, sword-wielding warrior, and possibly the human incarnation of a malevolent Goddess (which does sound like a Hollywood starlet to me). The always-engaging Knightley proves herself able to the task, but the movie itself does not. With enough writers credited to form a soccer team, you need a cartographer to help you wend your way through the needlessly convoluted plotlines — from the salvation of Jack Sparrow to the destruction of Davy Jones, plus the redemption of Bootstrap Bill, and the dangers that imposes on his son. Oh, we can’t forget the Royal Navy, the ‘true pirates’ and a Poseidon-like creature called Calypso. There’s a lot here but, as a Keira Knightley-vehicle, she is in the middle of most of this mess.
The Defending Champion
Until “Bend It Like Beckham” hit the American theaters in 2003 (UK 2002), Keira Knightley was a child actress (started at seven) who was landing support roles like Robin Hood’s daughter and watching other of her productions go straight to video. But “Bend It Like Beckham” earned a respectable $32-million. It was just the ticket for parents constantly on the lookout for movie fare they can let their teens view that they could also appreciate, where the star was not named CGI. Writer/director Gurinder Chada should be in Knightley’s will because this wonderful mix of romantic comedy and friendship coming-of-age really gave her the role she needed. She played Jules, a gifted soccer-player, who befriends newcomer actress Parminder Nagra who plays Jess, a London East Indian teen who resists the familial and cultural pressures to behave like a lady and abandon her passion for soccer. While playing clandestinely with some guy chums in a nearby park, Jess and Jules connect, and both realize they face similar pressures to conform even though they come from drastically different cultures. Jules convinces Jess to join her all-girl team, coached by Jonathan Rhys Meyers, despite Jess’s increasing involvement in her sister’s upcoming traditional Indian wedding. A further complication is Jess’ attraction to her new coach, who already is fending off a ‘crush’ from Knightley. The point is that Keira Knightley got the ball in this film and ran with it.
In our apples-and-mangoes comparison, “Bend It Like Beckham” is a better film than “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End.” If the question, however, is which one had a more positive impact on Knightley’s career by embedding her into American cinema, offering her years of opportunities to develop her craft, then we have to look at the aptly-cliche’d phrase,”Big Picture.” Her magnetic performance in “Bend It Like Beckham” probably begat her wonderful performance in “Pride and Prejudice” which probably allowed her to score her signature role in the entire “Pirates of the Caribbean” saga. And, the truth is, in a film that is overstuffed and full-of-itself, Knightley lights up that dark pirate screen whenever she appears.
The bottom line here is that if it wasn’t “Bend It Like Beckham” which opened the doors for Keira Knightley, it would have been something else. But the film that has made her a modern day “it” girl, conveyed household word status and paychecks bigger than a pirate’s chest is “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End.” Keira Knightley is in her very early twenties. We’re going to be watching her the rest of our lives but, as memories fade, we will remember “Pirates” as the film where most of us first realized what a star she was.