Danny Boyle is a director who has an eclectic career so far, never settling in to a single genre of film, instead excelling at each project, whether it be a zombie action thriller, a science fiction epic or a downright disgusting character piece.
Shallow Grave is definitely a debut movie. Released in 1994 it has dated quite badly, is very rough around the edges and has a certain raw direction and cinematography. The story is average at best, but you leave thinking about the strong climatic ending. The characters are self indulgent, witty and fast talking, these traits and overall style feels very much as a less disgusting precursor to Trainspotting, you can also certainly see the talent of the director at this early stage. It also marked the debut for screenwriter John Hodge, who collaborated with Boyle in next three movies (up to The Beach) and the first starring role for Ewan McGregor, who he later directed on Trainspotting and A Life Less Ordinary – this was until their feud over the casting of Leonardo DiCaprio in The Beach.
Trainspotting is an amazing piece of cinema. Having recently revisited the movie I was physically afflicted by the grotesque reality that Danny Boyle’s and the actors – notably Ewan McGregor – managed to project so vividly in this disgusting look at drug culture. Released in 1996 but set in ‘80s Scotland, it follows a gang of double crossing drug dealing outcasts. Everyone talks about the toilet scene and for good reason. It is a truly disgusting set piece which made me flinch and wriggle in my seat – a reaction both the director and actor were definitely hoping for.
A Life Less Ordinary (1997) is a light-hearted movie again starring Ewan McGregor, this time along side Cameron Diaz, together as an unexpected and unusual couple, forced together by her kidnapping. This rather conventional story has a slight twist, in the way of two angels, who are in charge of human relationships on earth, offer some unsolicited help to bring this unlikely couple together. The movie is a departure from his darker previous movies, in both style and substance, and although a perfectly fine movie in it’s own right, it is still one of his weakest.
The Beach (2000) had a somewhat controversial production process. Firstly, the studio wanted a bigger, well-known actor to star as the lead, and when Leonardo DiCaprio was cast, a feud was created between the director and his previous favourite Ewan McGregor. Secondly, there were protests about the production impact on the idyllic remote islands where it was filmed. With these issues aside, the movie conveys a great sense of awe and exploration that backpacking brings, inter-weaved with mystery and a sense of foreboding. The movie loses a little pace towards the end, but is visually impressive and draws you in quickly with the intriguing screenplay.
In 2002 Boyle returned to a more low-budget, British-based movie, the apocalyptic 28 Days Later. It opens with scenes of violent conduct and as the camera pans back, we see a monkey being forced to witness these atrocities – much like the main protagonist’s rehabilitation program in A Clockwork Orange. The movie plays out as a straight-forward survival movie, with the first half set in London’s abandoned streets, where we learn of the apocalyptic situation and meet the main characters, notably lead by Cillian Murphy (Jim). The second half is set in a rural stately home north of Manchester, which is being used a strong hold by a group of military personal. Although they have seemingly reached safety, things eventually turn sour, and in the final action scenes Jim’s rage mirrors that of the infected - a harsh and harrowing conclusion to the movies social commentary. There are some interesting stylistic shots, such as the painted flowers, the dream sequence & the final “28 days later” ending. Usually these types of playful and ‘arty’ shots would look out of place in any zombie or action movie, but this relatively low-budget British production isn’t a normal zombie-esque action movie. Although it spawned a direct sequel – 28 Weeks Later – it actually helped start the zombie movie revival we still see today.
Millions (2004) is the directors weakest movie. A childish tale of two deprived children who find a bag a money, the problem is, the next day the currency changes from Pounds Sterling to the Euro. The conflict begins as one believes they should give it to the poor, but the older brother prefers to be “fiscal responsibility”. And their journey interweaves with moral uncertainty and responsibility, but it is unfortunately wrapped up in a whimsical story. Although my least favourite movie, it is one I would like to revisit with a fresh pair of eyes.
Sunshine (2007) was Danny Boyle’s first big budget Hollywood movie and so far his only science-fiction set story. The characterisation of many of the crew is shallow even the main protagonist – played by Cillian Murphy in his second lead role for the director – has little in the way of dialogue, well scripted conflict and even scene time. It is clear that a massive amount of research was put in to the movie, on par with the scientifically sound sci-fi classic 2001: A Space Odyssey. By far the strongest scene is that of the airlock situation where the crew must leap through space in order to survive, there is high tension, great conflict and punchy dialogue. The external visuals are beautiful, but the story and acting is lacking somewhat, the story suffers from large and disorientating non-announced fast-forwarding in the timeline, and the final act takes an unnecessary “Event Horizon”-esque storyline detour. Overall an OK but enjoyable big-budget science-fiction movie but is lacking the characterisation most of his movies focus upon.
A side note about Sunshine’s marketing, which imposed the stunning visuals against the atmospheric music by Clint Mansell. The genre and style is well suited to the music – Lux Æterna – which first appeared in Darren Aronofsky’s masterpiece Requiem for a Dream. Yet this music was only used in the trailer. If it was used in subtle repetition like this years movie of the summer, Inception, the score could have been the movie’s strongest asset.
Slumdog Millionaire (2008) has been Boyle’s most successful movie to date. An unconventional non-linear story that was filmed on location in the Mumbai slums – even some of the leading cast members where from the area – and is told in multiple short stories as the protagonist explains how he knows the answers to all the questions in the Indian version of the TV game show “Who Wants to be a Millionaire”. Winning a total of eight Academy Award Oscars, including best achievements in cinematography, editing and directing and the much coveted “Best Motion Picture of the Year”, the movie also received universal praise from the public.
His latest movie, 127 Hours (2010), is a look at one mans struggle to overcome inevitable death by doing the unthinkable. After 127 hours stuck with his arm pinned under a boulder, this true story follows Aron Ralston and his insatiable desire to survive. James Franco is superb as the charismatic adrenaline junky, making you believe in the whole range of emotions he goes through, from carefree to despair and finally relief – he definitely carries the movie. The movie is enthused with Danny Boyle’s style. The music is very influential and a big part of the experience. There are also some very inventive shots, memorably the water flowing through his Camelback and the placement of a camera within a water canister. Boyle again manages to make the audience uncomfortable, but it isn’t the most talked about scene which got me to flinch and look away. During the movie I didn’t feel completely engaged with the character, but during the final scenes there was a definite sense of emotional relief, so the movie affects you more on a psychological level.
Danny Boyle is unquestionably an amazing director. He certainly has his own style, which he has continually improved from movie to movie, but he has managed to take completely different genres, ideas and stories and make them engaging, fun and visceral. He is definitely a director to watch and be surprised with what projects he tackles next.
This part of a series looking at movie directors.