Every once in a while, you get to watch a film performance so strange and fascinating that you wish the movie that contained it would never end, even if the movie in question is hot nonsense. In this case, we’re talking about Keira Knightley, who commits so wholly to her sugary, manic, very horny persona as the Sugar Plum fairy in The Nutcracker and the Four Realms that she almost redeems the movie. It’s a performance so good that it weathers an incomprehensible plot, two directors, and the introduction to Tchaikovsky’s ballet (and E.T.A. Hoffmann’s original story) realms of a number greater than three. Watching the film, you can only come to one conclusion: Knightley deserves an Oscar nomination. It would only be fair.
In an interview with EW about The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, Knightley claimed that she wanted to do the movie because she’d just been doing Thérèse Raquin and needed a break from being “murderous and psychotic and horrific” and “wanted the opportunity to play a sweet, sugary, pink fairy that was really, really silly.” It makes sense to go from having a breakdown in a corset — Knightley’s default mode of being — to a kids’ movie, but it’s funny that in the very same interview Knightley goes on to describe how she figured out her Nutcracker character in precise detail. She modeled her laugh off of Tchaikovsky’s melody, and then developed a voice that sounds like what would happen if a child learned English from the whistle tones on Mariah’s Christmas album. When she’s told bad news, Sugar Plum says, “Oh … pooh!” like she’s delivering an anatomically explicit insult about your close relative.
As Sugar Plum, who rules the Land of the Sweets in the absence of the lead character Clara’s mother, Knightley frets and flitters and does other things people only do in 19th-century novels as she describes the dangers of Helen Mirren’s ominous Mother Ginger and her Fourth Realm. The voice is sickeningly sweet and great, of course, but so is Knightley’s physical bearing: the way she always seems in danger of teetering over like a toy ballerina separated from her music box. Capping it off is the cotton-candy hair, implied to be made of actual spun sugar. We know this because at a moment of fright, Sugar Plum pulls off her hair and eats it. Knightley does this with so much conviction that I spent the rest of the movie wanting to eat her hair myself.
It becomes obvious pretty quickly into The Nutcracker and the Four Realms — and therefore you can’t get mad at me for spoiling this — that underneath Sugar Plum’s sugary exterior lies a heart of darker, eviler sugar. As it turns out, Sugar Plum wants to get her hands on Clara’s mother’s device, which gives life to toys within the Four Realms (it’s a giant microscope for some reason), build herself an army of tin soldiers, and use them to invade Mother Ginger’s realm so that she can rule the world herself.
Sugar Plum’s arc — seems nice and friendly, actually has no soul — has become a pretty standard Disney villain heel turn, but as with every other aspect of her performance, Knightley sells it with unnerving dedication. For whatever reason, Sugar Plum is horny for her tin soldiers, and Knightley coos over them, announcing “Hello, boys” like she’s a Lisa Frank version of Eva Perón. Yes, she also flies around with Evita arms. Yes, she can fly.
Knightley has made a career by playing women trapped by the expectations of femininity, who are often in a very literal sense constrained by corsets (shout out to Colette, which does all of that and also fucks). While Knightley seems to be taking a break from those themes by making The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, it feels more accurate to say that she accidentally on purpose made The Nutcracker and the Four Realms a far more interesting movie by candy-coating it with those fascinations. In the movie, Disney’s turned Clara into a ho-hum STEM student who likes to engineer things, who hates dressing up and dancing and all the things Sugar Plum presumably represents. Is Keira Knightley supposed to be playing her repressed psyche, a gruesome image of femininity that she’s conjured in the absence of her mother and in the presence of all the societal expectations of the 1870s? Well, no, she’s just an evil doll whom Clara’s mother brought to life, but it sure feels like that’s the most interesting way to read this movie, and it’s Knightley’s performance that opens this up to a more interesting reading.
The Nutcracker and the Four Realms should not be an interesting enough movie to have a performance as compelling as Keira Knightley’s in it. Disney, by way of Lasse Hallström and then Joe Johnston, came in with the standard available IP rule book; Keira Knightley arrived to play a horny candy nightmare. Few performances this year have had to do as much heavy lifting in one film, and hardly any are as memorable. For this, she deserves several acting awards and an Oscar nomination. It is deserved, and I really want to hear a presenter read the words “and the Four Realms” with a straight face.