Keira Knightley in Pride and Prejudice.
I can't remember if Keira Knightley smiled even once throughout all of Pirates of the Caribbean 2: Dead Man’s Chest.
This is too bad, and a big mistake on director Gore Verbinski’s part, because Knightley has one of the most joyful smiles in the history of film. Throughout Pride and Prejudice the merriment was threatening to explode out of her. The brilliance of her portrayal of Elizabeth Bennett was in making Elizabeth a happy person. Her Elizabeth believes that people are meant to be happy, they are put on earth to enjoy life, and her initial dislike for Mr Darcy is a reaction to his refusal to enjoy himself at a dance. It’s compounded by his apparent revulsion at the sight of other people enjoying themselves. Her dislike turns to actual loathing when he steps in and prevents her sister and his own best friend from being happy.
(As in Jane Austen's novel, in this movie the enemy of happiness isn’t depression, misery, or evil. It is self-importance masquerading as duty and responsibility. The bad guys in life are people who do the “right thing” in the name of propriety, which is why Elizabeth and her mother are so at odds. Mrs Bennett has lost track of her interest in seeing her daughters happy because she is obsessed with her duty to get them properly settled.)
When Darcy declares his love for Elizabeth he insults her by presenting his feelings as a disgusting rebellion against his better judgment. But he also infuriates her by his perversity. He has turned the thing that should make him happiest, his love, into a cause of his own misery. He has become his own worst enemy, which is, ironically, what saves him. As angry as she is, Elizabeth is still the champion of happiness and she can’t stand still and watch a basically good and decent man make himself miserable. There’s a part of her that is now bent on saving Darcy from herself, even as she’s storming away. Which is why, if I’m remembering it right, the scene ends with the laughter about to burst out of her again.
If I’m not remembering it right it’s because so much of that movie is so infused with Knightley’s laughter it's difficult to recall a moment when she isn't smiling or laughing.
But all through Dead Man’s Chest her smile is conspicuously absent. She isn’t exactly frowning; she’s wincing, as if she’s suffering from a massive migraine.
It was probably brought on by all the noise and confusion around her. Dead Man’s Chest was a loud and hyper-active mess in which even Johnny Depp got lost amidst all the disjointed action. But maybe what was causing her headaches was her own annoyance at not having a character to play. It was probably just me, but every time the camera focused on her face—which it did all too seldom— she seemed to be thinking, “What’s gone wrong here? In the last movie I was a smart, resourceful, bold and brave but beautiful and feminine young woman, not to mention the female lead and the object of Orlando Bloom’s desire. Here I’ve been reduced to the role of boy sidekick, which as far as I can tell seems to be why Will has forgotten I exist and Captain Jack has developed a sudden interest in rogering me.”
There is a problem for film makers trying to do costume epics today. How do you portray your female characters in an era when women were relegated to a very restricted domestic role in society without offending the sensibilities of 21st Century women in the audience who want to identify with strong, active, self-reliant heroines?
Hollywood’s answer to this for the last generation has been the same one used for finding something to do with the heroines of action-adventure movies—turn them into boys with breasts.
The heroines kick butt, curse, strut, and wield advanced weaponry as good or better than the guys.
I think that if you can’t come up with anything for your female lead to do except be a more slender shadow of your hero then you don’t actually have a female lead and you might as well save the cost of paying a starlet’s salary. I also think that if all your male lead is doing is kicking butt, cursing, strutting, and wielding advanced weaponry then you don’t actually have a male lead either and you need to go back and rethink your script, but nevermind. I didn’t like Casino Royale as much as I expected to, but I did like the way the character who could have been just another Bond girl was given actual work to do, work that didn’t require her to act like male action adventure hero.
There were so many things wrong with Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves that it’s hard to know where to begin when trying to explain why it was such a bad movie and a travesty of the Robin Hood story. (The best critique and correction of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves is Mel Brooks’ Robin Hood: Men in Tights, which besides being funny is almost as good a Robin Hood movie as Galaxy Quest is a Star Trek movie. Well, maybe that’s pushing it. But it’s a good Robin Hood movie, just as Dracula: Dead and Loving It is a good Dracula movie, and pretty darn funny itself.) But one of the things wrong with Costner’s Robin Hood was Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio’s Maid Marian.
She’s introduced as a boy. She wears a mask and boy’s clothes. She challenges Robin Hood and fights him like a boy. She wields a sword like a boy. And she takes a whuppin from him like a boy. And it’s as a boy that she wins Robin’s love on the spot.
This anachronistic and implausible “Anything you can do, I can do better” act is meant to portray Marian as the equal of any man. But this concept of turning girls into versions of the boys is actually misogynistic and more sexist than a straight, old-fashioned portrayal of the heroine as a damsel in distress, because it devalues any qualities she might have besides kicking butt, cursing, strutting, and wielding weapons, qualities like intelligence, wit, independence—these seemingly independent heroines are really just sidekicks to the heroes who do the real heavy lifting—and courage—if you can beat up every guy in the joint, or out-draw, outbox, out-fence, or out-slaughter them, you don’t need to be physically brave. And if you spend all your time fighting, you don’t have time to demonstrate your moral courage—and by devaluing the qualities that make them individuals it devalues them as anything but playmates for the heroes.
This is the lads’ mag ideal of the perfect girlfriend transferred to the big screen. The perfect girlfriend plays video games with you all day, goes out to the bar with you all night, where she stays out of the way while you yuk it up with the guys, then she takes you home and takes you to bed where she does all the work. Repeat the next day.
Compare Mastrantonio’s Marian to Olivia de Haviland in the classic Adventures of Robin Hood starring Errol Flynn.
(Don’t bother comparing Prince of Thieves to that film or Costner to Flynn, because it would be just too embarrassing for Costner.)
De Haviland’s Maid Marian is a variation on the classic damsel in distress, but within the confines of that archetype, she has plenty of room to be her own person. She is intelligent, outspoken, independent—she insists on her right to love whatever man she chooses to love, she has no qualms about telling off Prince John, she stands up to Guy of Gisbourne, and when she is captured by Robin she stands up to him. She is cool under pressure and thinks quickly. At the archery tournament she does a remarkable job of keeping her real feelings in check in order not to give Robin and his men away. She is not fearless, but she is brave. She takes her life in her hands when she goes to warn Robin’s men of the trap Gisbourne has set and when she’s discovered and faces his wrath and the implicit threat of torture and execution, not to mention the threat of a beating and a raping on the spot, she looks him in the eye and dares him to do his worst.
Most important of all, Marian is the moral intelligence of the movie. She starts off, like, perhaps, the audience, thinking she knows what’s right and proper, assuming she is on the side of goodness and truth, and satisfied in her own conscience, and then has to reject all she thought was true and learn to accept a much less romantic, and much less self-centered, view of how the world really works. Robin is her teacher, but she is a precocious student, and she learns what she needs to learn by using her own eyes and ears and brains.
In the first Pirates of the Caribbean, The Curse of the Black Pearl, Knightley’s character, another Elizabeth, is very close to a reincarnation of de Haviland’s Maid Marian. Early on, when we’re getting to know the adult Elizabeth, she objects to having to wear a corset in a scene in which she is meant to be symbolically rejecting the confines of the traditional, subservient role of 18th Century women but which is not the least bit anachronistic despite this because corsets could be torture devices and it’s hard to imagine that any woman of the time ever put one on without complaint. But the fact is that within the script Elizabeth doesn’t leave the confines of those traditional roles. She leaves the society in which those roles make any sense and so she has to adapt and adapt quickly to survive. Elizabeth is a classic damsel in distress, but as with de Haviland’s Maid Marian, the archetype doesn’t define or limit her.
She is smart, strong, outspoken, independent. She stands up to her father and insists on her right to be her own person and make choices about life and love for herself. She is not fearless, but she is very brave. When the pirates come and carry her away, she tries to fight them off, but when that doesn’t work, she doesn’t collapse into tears and then spend the rest of the movie waiting around to be rescued. She immediately sets to work planning her escape. This is important. She doesn’t fight her way out because she can’t, and not just because she’s a woman. These pirates can’t be killed. She has to think her way out of trouble. And this thinking is what ends up defining her. Elizabeth turns out to be the smartest person in the movie, outfoxing even Captain Jack Sparrow.
She does eventually join the fight. But she joins it as woman. Her weapon of choice is a chamber pot and her first line after braining the pirate threatening her lover is a reference to her corset. She fights well, because she’s tough and resourceful, and she’s enraged, but she doesn’t turn into a shadow of Jack Sparrow or Will Turner. She never picks up a sword. Even if she was strong enough to use one with deadly force—swords are heavier than they look in the movies—she wouldn’t know how to defend herself with one. Why would she? Who’d have taught her? I suppose, like Will, she could have taught herself, but then where would she have gotten the same access to swords as he had to practice with or a space to practice in? It doesn’t matter though, because it’s not the weapons she brings to the fight that count, it’s the brains and the courage, both of which she has to spare.
In short, thanks to some smart screenwriting, Elizabeth doesn’t have to give up being an 18th Century girl in order to become a 21st Century heroine.
But come Pirates of the Caribbean 2: Dead Man’s Chest, there she is, not just out of her corset, but out of her dress, disguised as a boy and stripped of all the best qualities she displayed in the first movie. A great deal of the time she’s wearing a big floppy hat, which is meant to hide her beardless face from Davy Jones’ crew but which has the effect of hiding the fact she’s Keira Knightley from the audience. But, hey, at least now she knows how to fence.
The script doesn’t even go the Mulan route, finding humor and developing her character in the ways she has to act in order to try to pass herself off as a boy. Instead of Elizabeth thinking out her disguise and her ruses, her boys’ clothes do all the work for her. The person she is, which is to say the woman she is, ceases to matter. She might as well be a boy for all the script gives her do in disguise, and it wouldn’t have mattered who played her after this point, because she’s not a character anymore either, she’s just a stick to beat the plot along. Actually, she’s just a model for the character in the video game, an object for game players to project their own identities upon, and since most of those game players are bound to be boys, for all intents and purposes she is a boy.
No wonder Knightley never smiles.
Dead Man’s Chest was mostly two and half hours of warm up for the third movie, At World’s End, which opens tonight. (That’s not why I won’t be live blogging Studio 60. I have to work.) As I said, even Johnny Depp got lost along the way in Dead Man’s Chest. I was hoping that At World’s End would get back to the fun of the first one, which, although it contained plenty of swordplay and derring-do, was a success because of its characters, Captain Jack first and foremost, but also Geoffrey Rush’s Captain Barbossa, Knightley’s Elizabeth, the two goofy minor pirates and the two goofy British Marines, and even Orlando Bloom’s somewhat too stolid Will Turner.
But from what I’ve seen of the extended trailers it looks as though the film makers decided that what they needed to do with the third one is top the second one for wretched excess and video game loopiness.
And although she’s hard to pick out in all the strangely colorless confusion, Knightley’s still dressed like a boy, still fighting like a boy, and still without anything to do.
But at least she’s no longer not smiling.
Now she’s out and out scowling.
Her migraine appears to have progressed to the point of an incipient stroke.
Related self-promotion: Me on Orlando Bloom as Errol Flynn's humorless kid brother and on why Robin Hood has to die in the end.
Self-conscious begging: A good way to support this blog is to shop through my Amazon store where, among other things, you can buy on DVD most of the movies I've reviewed. Please visit Mannion at the Movies today.