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Keira Knightley is at the center of a tug of love over how she spends her two free months between finishing “Silk” in May and returning to “Pirates of the Caribbean III” in August.

In the red corner there’s her champion Joe Wright, who directed her to an Oscar nomination for “Pride & Prejudice” and slammed BAFTA for snubbing her. She’s agreed to star in his next movie, “Atonement,” based on Ian McEwan‘s novel, which Working Title is planning to shoot this summer.

But in the blue corner there’s her mother, playwright Sharman Macdonald, whose screenplay “The Best Time of Our Lives” also is aiming for a June start. Knightley has been attached since the project’s inception four years ago.

Neither movie is yet greenlit, and both sets of producers are pushing to get all their elements in place. Mike Radford is set to direct “The Best Time of Our Lives,” but he’s starting another movie, “Flawless,” on March 27, so it will take a feat of scheduling for him to do both.

The race has an extra spice because one of the producers on “Best Time of Our Lives” is Sarah Radclyffe, who co-founded Working Title with Tim Bevan back in 1984, but left the company after it was taken over by Polygram.

“Best Time of Our Lives” is based on the true story of the complex relationship between Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, his wife, Caitlin, his childhood friend Vera Phillips and her eventual husband, William Killick. Knightley is down to play Vera.

The project was originated by first-time producer Rebekah Gilbertson, who happens to be the grand-daughter of Phillips and Killick. Five years ago she made a short film starring Knightley, on which Macdonald acted as a script adviser.

When Gilbertson happened to tell Macdonald the story of her grandparents’ youthful entanglement with Thomas, Macdonald (whose credits include “The Winter Guest”) saw the potential for a movie. Radclyffe, who had been Gilbertson’s mentor at the film school, came aboard to lend her experience.

The project still has to navigate the tricky final stages of casting and financing. Capitol Films is in place to handle worldwide sales, and there’s also support from Prescience Film Partners and the new Welsh Creative IP Fund run by Linda James — whose father, by strange coincidence, was the family doctor of Dylan and Caitlin Thomas.

Gilbertson is adamant that Knightley is fully committed. “It’s Keira’s passion project,” she says. But as Knightley is 20 and her character Vera is 25, she clearly has time on her side to play the role at a later date (after “Pirates III,” for example) if “Atonement” comes together first.

Just to add another layer of complexity, director Marc Evans is trying to pull together his long-mooted biopic of Caitlin Thomas, titled “Caitlin,” to shoot this summer. In a final irony, Rosamund Pike, Knightley’s co-star in “Pride & Prejudice” and Joe Wright’s other half, is in talks to play Caitlin.

U tools up in U.K.

David Kosse, Universal’s international distribution prexy, has made his first public move to prepare for the post-UIP era by hiring Simon Hewlett from 20th Century Fox to run U’s new U.K. distribution arm.

Hewlett starts May 1 as managing director of Universal Pictures U.K. He spent 18 years at Fox in a variety of homevid and theatrical roles, notably as European marketing director and most recently as U.K. topper.

“From my point of view, Simon brings a huge breadth of experience across video and theatrical, and across Europe,” Kosse says.

He won’t, however, confirm when U will actually start releasing its own movies in Blighty. UIP, the foreign theatrical partnership between U and Paramount, will be partially dismantled at the end of 2006, with Par taking over its existing U.K. operation. The hire of Hewlett could mean U will be ready to compete from day one.