True Brit: The Brilliant Danny Boyle

I recently wrote a feature on Danny Boyle’s movies to tie in with the cinematic release of 127 Hours. The article was, for reasons too convoluted and tedious to go into here, was never used. I thought that I would post it here instead. It has its faults, I know: it’s lopsided and does not have enough information on the film where the dude cuts off his arm, as it shall hereafter be known, but I was working to a tight wordcount and had quite a few films to fit in and lots of things I wanted to say. Sometimes you have to cut out material you don’t want to cut out. It’s just the way it goes. Often, it makes for a much better article.

I’ve since seen 127 Hours twice. I’m glad I saw it in the cinema first. Rarely have I been at a screening where there is such a unanimous reaction from the audience. The moment when James Franco finally does the needful was, after such an intensely paced build-up, a wave of sympathetic pain shot through the theatre. There was an audible gasp, a mass clenching of teeth and the whoosh of multiple pairs of feet being lifted off the floor. It was a special moment, one which rarely happens at the cinema, and I’m glad that I was there to experience it.

Boyle’s latest work remains a very special film. One of things which fascinates me about it is that for all its visceral power that scene is incredibly cathartic. It’s liberating. You want Ralston to escape the canyon and get back to living something resembling a regular life. Whilst on the press junket to promote the film Boyle and Franco often spoke in pseudo-spiritual terms about the film, coming close to using the phrase “born again” on several occasions. In fact, shortly after I got to speak to a group of around 150 young people about my love of cinema and my Christian faith and I cited 127 Hours as a profound example of how movies, for all their shortcomings, can contain profound messages. Maybe that is one of the best things about Boyle. His films have real heart and soul. No matter if they are set in space or on a tropical island or in a Zombie infested London they are always concerned with human experience.

So, here’s the Boyle feature, aired at last…


With eight movies and several more television dramas to his name, Danny Boyle has become one of the leading lights of the British film industry. Always coming in on budget and on time, he is widely respected as a bold, innovative director who is at home in any conceivable genre. With Boyle’s latest picture 127 Hours on general release it seemed fitting to take a look back at his career to date.

Here’s a quick challenge: how many still living, world-renowned British directors can you name? Contemporary cinema is dominated by cash-raking codswallop from American swill-merchants, yet ruddy-faced, bespectacled British filmmakers seem thinner than Ted Danson’s hair. Stephen Frears and Paul Greengrass might spring to mind. There’s also ever genial Mike Leigh, who has been honing his improvisational style for forty years. Or Ken Loach, who continues to make politically charged, socially aware dramas in his eighth decade. Buffs will pick out Scott brothers Ridley and Tony, but these days they seem content to churn out big budget, small intellect tripe in the American mould rather than plummy pictures with a distinctly British flavour. However, after you have ticked off those names you would be forgiven for running out of steam but at least you will still have a few fingers to scratch your head.

It might be take the average filmgoer a while before they think of Danny Boyle. Not because his films are bad – far, far from it – but because it’s difficult to pin down exactly what kind of director Boyle is. He may be British but his work is a long way from the jolly hockey sticks comedies and the interminable gangster subgenre which dominated multiplexes from the late 1990s onwards. Further, like the prolific Michael Winterbottom, who most recently made the joyous comedy series The Trip, Boyle has built up a body of work which disco dances between drama, social commentary, sci-fi and screwball comedy. The difference is that whereas the edgy, contentious nature of Winterbottom’s work has so far prevented him from reaching a wider audience, Boyle is able to make pictures that slot neatly into the mainstream without sacrificing their independent verve.

After earning his stripes by working on telly like Inspector Morse Boyle shot to prominence by helming Shallow Grave (1994), a savage comic thriller which fused the devious spirit of the Coens’ Blood Simple (1984) with the central plot of Chaucer’s The Pardoner’s Tale: greed is the root of all evil. Flatmates normally fall out over crumbs in the butter tub but they rarely have to contend with a dead body and a suitcase full of equally cold cash. That might not sound like a golden barrel of laughs but Boyle and writer John Hodge took this simple set-up and built layer upon layer of paranoia and twitchy energy to make a riveting minimalist horror. Shallow Grave only seems clichéd because its dark mood and brutal Itchy and Scratchy style violence have been copied so many times since.

Any accusations of Boyle being a one trick pony were smashed out of the park with Trainspotting (1996), which pared down Irvine Welsh’s messy portmanteau narrative of drug addicts slumming around Edinburgh to reveal the grinning, gap-toothed skeleton underneath. Returning writer Hodge cut (most of) the more outré scatological moments, focusing instead on the emotional and physical trauma heroin wreaked upon Scotland during the preceding decades. Trainspotting was an unprecedented success, particularly when one considers how poorly similarly themed films such as Drugstore Cowboy (1989) had fared. Further, though Boyle dared to show both the highs and lows of addiction, the film’s message, summed up in the shots of dead babies and the doomed, tragic Tommy, was pretty clear: drugs are not a good thing.

Understandably, much of the buzz surrounding Trainspotting focused on Ewan McGregor, then a star in waiting, whose cocksure attitude and soft Scottish burr set eyelids fluttering the world over. Sadly, Boyle’s next film, A Life Less Ordinary (1997) failed to capitalise on this momentum. This pastiche of Raising Arizona (1987) and golden era road movies was, frankly, a big old mess. Pairing McGregor with the equally hot Cameron Diaz no doubt seemed like a great idea at the time, but a gonzo script involving angels, shootouts and a mobster dentist meant that this was a less than perfect romance. This might have been a contributing factor in McGregor quitting work on The Beach (2000), and his role as backpacker losing his mind in far flung Asia was passed to the more bankable Leonardo DiCaprio. Adapted from Alex Garland’s novel, this psychedelic mishmash of tree-hugging eco-love and philosophical psychobabble remains a required taste, even for Boyle’s most fervent fans.

However, The Beach had one thing working in its favour: a cracking soundtrack. Boyle has always understood the power of musical cues to affect the audience emotionally. Think, for example, of the junkies in Trainspotting pegging it full tilt down Princes Street synched to ‘Lust For Life’ or Shallow Grave’s ram-cam credits pulsing in time with Leftfield. This understanding of the evocative power of sound is exemplified by 28 Days Later (2002), Boyle’s venture into straight horror territory. Famous for giving the world fast Zombies, some two years before the Dawn Of The Dead remake tried the same trick, and for its eerie vision of an empty, post-apocalyptic London, the film is most notable for its use of sound. The rabid growls of the infected (strictly speaking, they are not Zombies at all) were bolstered by a bed of barked words like “hate” and “kill”) and the strains of Godspeed You! Black Emperor. It’s the ideal metaphor for a society where one can’t escape the white noise of horns, pneumatic drills, sirens, jet engines and tannoy speakers. Curiously, 28 Days Later isn’t half as frightening with the sound turned off.

After knocking out the underrated children’s film Millions (2004), Boyle reunited with Garland for Sunshine (2007), a slice of twisted sci-fi which somehow found the middle ground between Solaris (1972) and Alien (1979). The film doesn’t disguise its ecological theme – a crew of astronauts and scientists jet into space to “reignite” the dying Sun – but this is not political tub-thumping. The result is an intense, claustrophobic yet unconventional horror which zips off on a wig-out tangent about two thirds through. The final coda, in which Cillian Murphy’s physicist disappears up his own mental vortex, is bold, baffling and brilliant.

If there is a single trope or leitmotif which connects the disparate elements of Boyle’s canon, then it is the plight of one character – the “hero” – in an unjust, uncaring world. The Oscar-snaffling Slumdog Millionaire (2008), erroneously tagged as “the feel-good film of the decade”, for example, centres on the orphaned Jamal desperately clawing his way out of the Juhu shanty towns. In 28 Days Later, Murphy’s everyman protects his surrogate family from a universe spiralling into chaos and brutality. The accompanying question is: what is this character prepared to lose? What will they sacrifice to escape from their predicament? No film asks this more pointedly than 127 Hours, the true life tale of danger-loving, self-admitted jackass Aron Ralston (James Franco). We should all know the plot, such as it is, by now: a freak hiking accident left Ralson stuck down a Utah canyon with a boulder crushing his right arm, equipped with a blunt penknife and a depleting supply of water. From this slight set-up Boyle turns what might have been an exercise in boredom into a rousing exploration of human resilience in the same vein as Into The Wild (2007) and Buried (2010). Knowing that the audience knows what’s coming, Boyle cleverly toys with audience expectations: we hear that Ralston has made a tourniquet a days before he uses it and a first attempt to sever his limb reveals that he needs to break the bones first.

However, when that scene finally arrives we have invested so much emotion in Franco’s brave, subtle performance that the reaction is one of liberation, not shock or disgust. We want Ralston to escape in the same way that we wanted Renton to kick the habit or Jamal to win the game show. These moments of joyful relief are at the heart of each of Boyle’s films. His characters might lose an arm, their mind or a loved one, but they gain so much more in return. And so do the audience.




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2 Responses to “True Brit: The Brilliant Danny Boyle”

  1. Ross Says:

    Thanks for the comment, Tim. I watched Monsters recently too and while I liked it I’m not sure that I loved it. I think as an achievement it is very impressive. It’s been well documented that they filmed it on the hoof, mostly improvised the script, Edwards did all the effects in his bedroom etc. As a fully rewarding, engaging film it is lacking but as an experiment it does point towards an interesting future for low-budget, homegrown movies.

  2. Tim Higgins Says:

    Great article Ross. I’ve really enjoyed Boyle’s recent work and I’m excited by what he will offer up next. I love that he took on 127 hours following the success of Slumdog. It easily could have been terrible if he think about it but he showed his talent. Fair play to Franco to.

    I do think that British directors will start to come through again. I watched “Monsters” the other night which was Gareth Edwards first movie I’m charge. Exciting to see what he does next.

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