D: Danny Boyle (1996)
with Ewan McGregor, Ewen Bremner, Robert Carlyle, Jonny Lee Miller
D: Danny Boyle (1994)
with Ewan McGregor, Christopher Eccleston, Kerry Fox
D: Douglas McGrath (1996)
with Gwyneth Paltrow, Jeremy Northam, Toni Collette, Greta Scacchi, Ewan McGregor
My mouth literally dropped open when I learned that Ewan McGregor would be playing Obi-Wan Kenobi in the new Star Wars flicks, filming now and due to be released around the turn of the century. All of my mental dominos suddenly fell and I was viscerally shaken by the sheer perfection of Lucas' choice. Fucking brilliant. Of course, it helps that I had just come from The Pillow Book, Peter Greenaway's film that is also fucking brilliant and utilizes McGregor's talents to their fullest. And I'm not just talking about the full-frontal shots of one of McGregor's more hidden but impressive traits.
One of my many guilty pleasures has been watching Ewan McGregor and complaining to all around that he was a treasure just aching to be discovered. Unfortunately for those of us who would like to see McGregor receive more credit for his skills, he's one of those actors who disappears into a role, becoming only a face that looks familiar but you can't quite place. Ironically, I didn't even recognize him in the previews for Nightwatch, thanks to his adoption of a very good American accent and a haircut. His relative obscurity seems to have ended though, thanks to my proselytizing and a couple of major movie deals, which will hopefully turn out much better than the disappointing A Life Less Ordinary. But you can still catch the early McGregor at the local video store, a journey I highly recommend because some fine work has been magnetically captured for the lifetime of videotape.
Trainspotting was the first of my forays into the world of Ewan McGregor. Based on Irving Welsh's novel about heroin addicts in Scotland, Trainspotting is the kind of movie that you marvel at long after the credits have ended. McGregor simply becomes Mark Renton, our humble narrator and all-around good guy except for his junk habit. Renton's snide commentary on the state of his life is finely drawn by an almost emaciated McGregor who makes his work appear effortless. Rounding out the cast are Ewen Bremner as the clueless Spud, Jonny Lee Miller as Sick Boy, a Sean Connery-lovin' junkie who bears an odd resemblance to a certain Chronicle writer, and Robert Carlyle, the actor who recently thrust his way through The Full Monty, as Begbie, the anti-smack drunk who is more cruel than Leona Helmsley on crystal meth. All of the cast gives strong, believable, and unique performances that fit the bizarre world of this film, but it would not exist without director Danny Boyle, screenwriter John Hodge, and producer Andrew MacDonald. They create an artfully gritty world that continually echoes one of the main themes of this film -- addicts are addicts for the pleasure of it -- and it doesn't seem to matter if your drug of choice is injected or on the screen. Boyle and company also have a masterful way of indelibly working music through the visuals, à laReservoir Dogs' "Stuck in the Middle With You" ear-carving scene. For me, Lou Reed's "Perfect Day" will always be coupled with images of McGregor, a red rug, and a cab. Trainspotting is a visual trip, with several quirky homages to Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange, that draws you in with its sardonic humor, genuine pathos, and snappy writing that produced more wannabe catch-phrases than the latest Bruce Willis flick.
Boyle, MacDonald, and Hodge honed this wonderful coupling of music, visuals, and clever words, as well as a strange affection for toy babies, in their first film Shallow Grave. Shallow Grave is perfect for those out hunting for roommates or starting to trust those that you already have, picking up once again on another of this triumvirates' favorite themes. Sure, sure, the whole relationship begins as fun and games, but it ends with a devious and deadly romp throughout a beautifully decorated loft in what appears to be Edinburgh as Alex, David, and Juliet find a fourth for their flat. Unfortunately, this new roomie decides to drop dead, leaving nothing behind but a suitcase full of money and a mess on the sheets. The three scheme to keep the cash, dispose of the corpse, and tell no one. And this is when the fun begins. McGregor is delightfully wicked as Alex, the smart-mouthed reporter who is thrilled to find a story in his very own apartment. Kerry Fox understatedly plays Juliet while Christopher Eccleston brings new meaning to the word "creepy" with his accountant-turned-killer David. These wonderful performances are only heightened by Boyle's keen visual sense and camera placement, which occasionally makes you wonder how on earth he was able to get some of his more unusual shots. As the characters' world closes in, so does the movie, becoming tight and claustrophobic with its reduction in lighting and perspective shifts.
But McGregor has done more than low-budget-and-brilliant Scottish films. He has dissolved himself into a musician in an economically depressed town in Brassed Off to a convenience store gunman in an episode of ER. McGregor's even given a shot at English aristocracy in Douglas McGrath's underrated yet sweet Emma. Gwyneth Paltrow stars as the matchmaker who can see the perfect love for everyone but herself in this 1816 Jane Austen tale. Games of status are played while the pieces smile and charm each other in a world full of empire waistlines. No one can be straightforward about their affections due to the mores of the era and must circumlocute in order to give the right appearance. It should all be rather tiresome, but McGrath's light adaptation and camera work makes this film a touching piece of meringue. This may be, however, the only movie in which McGregor's invisible touch seems to falter. You can tell he's trying too hard to be genteel, perhaps some left-over Scottish angst about rubbing elbows with the British upper-crust, however imaginary. Not to say that he is horrible, he's not, but compared to his work in Shallow Grave and Trainspotting, McGregor's portrayal of the scoundrel Frank Churchill is lacking his usual unschooled grace and unspoken devilishness. This, however, is the perfect time to catch up with this wonderful actor before he becomes an action figure and the idol of 12-year-olds everywhere.
-- Adrienne Martini