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The feminist reason Keira Knightley always stars in period dramas

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Megan Murray
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Keira Knightley has called out the prevalence of sexual violence in modern-day scripts, citing this as a reason why she frequently takes on period roles. 

Pride and Prejudice’s Elizabeth Bennet. Georgiana Cavendish, the political power-player portrayed in The Duchess. Anna Karenina, the strong-minded Russian aristocrat who refused to be bound by society’s constraints. When it comes to strong women in period dramas, Keira Knightley has (almost) played them all. 

Now, the actress has revealed why she frequently attaches herself to films set in previous eras – namely, the misogynistic and violent treatment of women in many modern films.

In an interview with Variety, Knightley says: “I don’t really do films set in the modern day because the female characters nearly always get raped.”

“I always find something distasteful in the way women are portrayed,”  she continues. “Whereas I’ve always found very inspiring characters offered to me in historical pieces.” 

The actress’s fondness for period dramas continues with her latest role. She is preparing to debut Colette, a film about the 19th century French novelist and liberal voice for women, at the Sundance Film Festival. 

Keira Knightley in The Duchess, set in 18th century England

Knightley adds that she thinks it’s now more common to see positive depictions of women in TV series, rather than in films. However, she says she has recently seen “some improvement” in how women are depicted in the film scripts she receives.

“With the rise of Netflix and Amazon we’re seeing some strong female characters and female stories on streaming services. I don’t know about films as much,” she says. 

“[But] I’m suddenly being sent scripts with present-day women who aren’t raped in the first five pages and aren’t simply there to be the loving girlfriend or wife.”

The actress links improvements in how women are portrayed onscreen with more female filmmakers entering the industry. 

“When there are female writers and directors and producers, the parts for women are better, and so the way that society views women through drama is much better and much more well rounded,” she says.

Knightley with Matthew Macfadyen in Pride and Prejudice

In regards to the sexual harassment scandal that has engulfed Hollywood recently, Knightley says she was unaware of the extent of the abuse allegedly carried out by men such as Harvey Weinstein

However, she says she knew there was a “culture of silencing women and the culture of bullying them”. 

Knightley herself has not been assaulted by anyone in the industry, she says, but has – like many women – had to contend with predatory behaviour in her personal life. 

“I’m fortunate that I’ve never been sexually abused professionally or harassed on a film set, but in my personal life, when I’ve been in bars, I can count four times when I’ve been what I’d say was assaulted in a minor way.  

“I think everyone has battled their fair share of monsters,” she continues. “It’s not just actresses. It’s teachers; it’s lawyers. I’m not talking about rape, but I’m talking about the people who had been grabbed in pubs or their breasts had been fondled by somebody they didn’t know or they’d had someone shove a hand up their skirt.” 

In response to the movements currently empowering women to come forward with their stories of sexual abuse, Knightley says: “There’s been a lot of pain and a lot of suffering. We’re in a period of time in which it all has to come out. 

“Then we need to move forward and figure out how to make sure that it doesn’t happen again.”

Images: Rex Features