Wednesday, 9 December 2015

Before Steve Jobs: A Danny Boyle Retrospective


Director Danny Boyle's latest film Steve Jobs (read my review here) may not have set the box office alight (currently sitting at a $24 million gross off a $30 million budget), but it has been a hit with the critics and should snaffle a few big awards over the coming months. You never know quite what you're going to get next from Danny Boyle, as a look back at his wonderfully varied career shows.


Starting out in TV movies, mini-series and episodes of Inspector Morse from 1987 to 1993, it took Danny Boyle’s gripping debut feature Shallow Grave in 1994 for anyone to take notice of the mild-mannered Northerner before he would go on to become a national treasure last year. His career has gone from the controversy baiting Trainspotting about a group of Scottish junkies to be being the pride of Britain with his stunning marvel, the London 2012 Olympics Opening Ceremony. With Trance about to hit cinemas, we take a look at just what it is that makes Danny Boyle the best of British.

Danny Boyle’s debut feature film arrived in 1994 with the frenetic, energetic and deeply dark Shallow Grave. Putting Boyle and McGregor close to being on the map rather than slap bang in the centre; it nevertheless introduces many of the themes, stylistic traits and collaborations that would colour Boyle’s career. From its opening voiceover (not nearly as cool as Trainspotting’s) to its mistrust between friends, betrayal over a suitcase full of money and its collaboration between director Boyle, writer John Hodge, producer Andrew Macdonald and star Ewan McGregor, there are many signs of great things to come.

Three friends sharing an apartment in Scotland find a new housemate to join them in their spare bedroom. After spending his first night there, the new guy drops dead leaving a suitcase stuffed with cash for the three friends to decide what to do with. When they decide to dump the body and keep the cash, things turn swiftly sour. Greed, betrayal and brutality soon follow as gangster types show up for the lost money and the three friends finally turn on each other. Boyle’s mobile camera is wonderful to watch, the soundtrack pulses and Ewan McGregor and Christopher Eccleston bring two very different characters to the central triangle, leading to a thrilling and clever final act.


However 1996 was the year that Boyle really got noticed. Trainspotting is his masterpiece, based on the book by Irvine Welsh and telling the tale of Scottish junkies trying to kick the habit; failing, fucking and finally trying to go straight after one big score. Ewan McGregor stars as Renton but the ensemble cast of Ewan Bremner as loveable Spud, Robert Carlyle as psychopath Begbie, Johnny Lee Miller, Kelly Macdonald, Kevin McKidd and Peter Mullan are all on finest form. Working again with writer Hodge and producer Macdonald, the filmmaking triumvirate produce the most iconic and best British film of the 90s.

Renton and his ‘buddies’ should be despicable low lives but Boyle and his collaborators keep all these junkies believable and most importantly sympathetic… except maybe Robert Carlyle’s mini-madman Begbie. It was accused of promoting heroin chic, a fashionably scrawny look still modelled by Kate Moss, and of glamorising heroin use. It does neither, giving a brutally honest account of the degradation and danger of heroin addiction but still managing to give some character’s an almost happy Hollywood ending. The soundtrack, the ‘choose life’ monologue and the iconic marketing not only put Boyle on the map but also Britain and set McGregor off on his journey to Star Wars.
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How can you follow a film like Trainspotting? Unfortunately it’s very difficult and some might say you just can’t. Boyle took the lure of Hollywood dollars with his next production; keeping McGregor, Hodges and Macdonald in tow but producing the ambitious, surreal but fatally flawed misstep that is A Life Less Ordinary. Released only a year after the success of Trainspotting it was bound to be a disappointment but even on its own terms this tale of angels and kidnapping fails to elicit much of a response, emotionally or intellectually. It feels rushed, miscast and too silly for its own good. Cameron Diaz joined the cast as a spoiled rich girl who allows herself to be kidnapped by Ewan McGregor’s loveable oaf, but the chemistry, the comedy and the supernatural interference of two of Heaven's angels fail to gel and offer a satisfying whole. If there is one film in Boyle’s career to avoid, this is it.


Three years later Boyle returned with another shot at the blockbuster; this time starring Leonardo DiCaprio in a role that was promised to Ewan McGregor but then snatched away due to studio interference. It caused a riff between Boyle and McGregor that is rumoured to have only recently been resolved. It’s also a huge shame as Boyle’s adaptation of Alex Garland’s incredible book The Beach feels like one big bucks compromise after another. Richard, the hero of the book, is British and would have been a better fit for McGregor and his unrequited love for the girl he couldn’t have is a high point of the novel. Instead the film makes the most of Leo’s heartthrob status and has him shagging his away around the beautiful, idyllic island hideaway of the title.

Lots of Boyle’s fun and funky stylistic traits are there and Leo isn’t bad as Richard but the film had a huge mountain to climb to be anywhere near as brilliant as the book. Shooting in Thailand and making the most of beautiful locations, the ending was also changed from the novel in an exciting direction. More interestingly, the collaboration between Boyle and McGregor came to a close, but it opened the door to a new collaboration.


After the critical shrug towards The Beach, Boyle retreated to television to complete a couple of television movies in 2001. Feeling refreshed and ready to take on a feature film again, Boyle resisted the studios and offers of big budgets and decided instead to film a zombie movie that would redefine the genre forever. 28 Days Later marked his second collaboration of sorts with writer Alex Garland. Whereas Garland wrote only The Beach novel with Hodges penning the screenplay, 28 Days Later was Garland’s first film script.

Featuring Cillian Murphy (who would later appear again in Sunshine), 28 Days Later is the story of a virus that spreads throughout Britain turning people into blood-spewing rage-filled savages, the Infected. Giving the zombie genre a vital shot in the arm by unleashing basically what amounted to sprinting, extra-terrifying zombies, its digitally shot, low budget thrills are just what the British horror film needed and also sent Boyle in a new direction, sticking with lower budgets to enhance his creative and bold visions. 28 Days Later feels like Boyle back to his roots; low budget, British characters and setting, gritty, brutal, but stylish and subtly commercial enough to attract the American audience. It also marked the start of his collaboration with director of photography Anthony Dod Mantle that would continue through Millions, Slumdog Millionaire, 127 Hours and Trance and his collaboration with composer John Murphy that would make more music together through Millions and Sunshine.

Sticking to home turf, a small story and returning to a narrative that spins around an ill-gotten bag full of money (see also Shallow Grave and the final act of Trainspotting), Boyle’s next film introduced him to the wonders of working with children, which he would again do in Slumdog Millionaire. Millions feels a little like an anomaly in Boyle’s career though. It is the utterly charming and completely surreal tale of two little boys who come across a large amount of money as Britain prepares to convert to the Euro. It’s alt-universe where England has decided to go with the common currency is far from the strangest things about it. One of the little boys sees saints everywhere and even converses with them. There is a strong spiritual element throughout with stars in the sky, a pivotal nativity play and Jehovah’s Witnesses all featuring heavily.

Though that all might bring back unwelcome memories of A Life Less Ordinary and its not so heavenly angels, Millions is far smarter and more surreal, but also much more emotional than Boyle’s earlier misfire. Its ending is completely bonkers but Millions is worth a look to see Boyle at his weirdest. Incredibly, it manages to balance family drama and laughs and with smart scripting and intelligent themes.

In 2007, Boyle returned to Alex Garland for his next script, the science fiction scorcher Sunshine. Infinitely smarter than many examples of the genre, it’s not quite Danny Boyle’s 2001: A Space Odyssey but it is an outstandingly shot, edited, scored and special effects dependent intellectual blockbuster. Though it may sound more like Michael Bay than Stanley Kubrick with a crew of scientists sent to kick start the dying sun with a nuclear weapon, it is smarter than the average mission to save the Earth stupidity.

With its beautiful and haunting score from John Murphy, incredible special effects and gorgeous cinematography, it is worlds away from anything Boyle had directed before, despite the presence of Cillian Murphy, returning after their collaboration on 28 Days Later.


Danny Boyle’s next two films were both written by Simon Beaufoy, the writer who until then had been best known for The Full Monty. Slumdog Millionaire and 127 Hours were both adaptations of books, something Boyle had not attempted since the success of Trainspotting and the relative disappointment of The Beach. Slumdog Millionaire gained Boyle real international recognition and acceptance as it scooped eight Academy Awards. Its success not only reflected Boyle’s incredible directing talent but also the spot on selection of his collaborators from Anthony Dod Mantle’s cinematography to Beaufoy’s screenplay to his editing and music teams.

Slumdog Millionaire also confirmed Boyle as a director at his best working with budgetary constraints and with a vibrant culture to capture and put up on screen. His work with the young Indian non-professional actors recalls his eliciting of wonderful performances from the boys in Millions.

Boyle then took restraints to new limits with his adaptation of Aron Ralston’s incredible survival tale Between a Rock and Hard Place. Sticking James Franco down a canyon and trapping him under a rock for 127 Hours meant the real star of the film was not just Franco and his desperate, determined performance but also Boyle’s signature kinetic style. For a film so limited to one location (and a claustrophobic one at that), 127 Hours is a speedy, zippy, film-making tour de force with whizzing camerawork, split screens and choppy editing all amounting to a highly emotional and cathartic cinematic journey.


It is not only a great tale of survival, like a real-life Saw film, but 127 Hours also brings together many of the themes of Boyle's film career to date. From Trainspotting’s opening sprint through the Edinburgh streets set to Iggy Pop’s Lust for Life, Danny Boyle has created memorable characters whose life-affirming stories really do show a strong desire to survive from Renton kicking heroin to Ralston cutting his own arm off. There are elements of the spiritual present with Franco’s hero finding hope in premonitions of his future son. Angels, saints, hope and visions of paradise have all featured in Boyle’s films of the past and Ralston is forced to question his morals and values while trapped in the canyon. Danny Boyle’s films have always questioned moral choices over money, drugs and the value of human life.

He is a director who has traversed genres like few others. Not content with this, Boyle recently directed his own version of Frankenstein at the National Theatre and quickly and conscientiously silenced the cynics by putting on one of the greatest Olympic Opening Ceremonies the world has ever seen.

Trance sees him work with James McAvoy, Rosario Dawson and Vincent Cassel for the first time in a trippy art-heist thriller that also sees him reunite with writer John Hodge and director of photography Anthony Dod Mantle. With the news that the long-awaited sequel to Trainspotting will now be arriving in 2017 with the original cast intact, it looks as though Danny Boyle’s lust for a life in filmmaking is set to continue long into the future. 

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