Mark Kermode on… Danny Boyle, a director who defines British pop culture

Mark Kermode on… Danny Boyle, a director who defines British pop culture

Lancashire-born film-maker Danny Boyle holds a special place in the nation’s heart, having been responsible for not one but three defining moments in our recent pop-culture history. In 1996, his daringly inventive adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting changed the face of young British cinema, with star-making performances from the likes of Ewan McGregor, Kelly Macdonald and Robert Carlyle, and a magpie soundtrack (everything from Lou Reed and Iggy Pop to Pulp, Blur and Underworld) that out-hipped Pulp Fiction. I was co-hosting Radio 1’s film programme when Trainspotting hit UK cinemas, and Mary Anne Hobbs and I immediately ditched our opening station jingles in favour of the thumping drum intro to Lust for Life, which remained the show’s theme tune in perpetuity.

Dev Patel and Freida Pinto in multiple Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire (2008).View image in fullscreen

A decade later, Slumdog Millionaire (2008) scooped eight Oscars, including best picture and director, prompting the kind of ecstatic responses back home that had greeted Colin Welland’s famous “the British are coming!” speech for Chariots of Fire in 1982. Ironically, Boyle’s international hit had almost gone straight to DVD after its American distributors deemed it too challenging for theatrical audiences (despite being billed as “the feelgood film of the decade”, there’s a lot of slumdog before you get to the millionaire).

Then, in 2012, as artistic director of Isles of Wonder, Boyle choreographed a spectacular introduction to the London Olympics that rivaled Beijing’s 2008 extravaganza (previously hailed as the “greatest ever” curtain raiser). It offered a diverse celebration of art, culture and industry, flew the flag for the NHS and made the Queen seem cool. Quite the achievement.

Children representing Great Ormond Street Hospital, the NHS and children’s literature in Danny Boyle’s London 2012 Olympics opening ceremony, July 2012.View image in fullscreen

Yet amid the hoopla surrounding such acclaimed productions, other highlights from Boyle’s extraordinary career can get overlooked. In 1989, for example, he produced Alan Clarke’s Elephant – a riveting BBC Two drama that took a scalpel to the Troubles in Northern Island, with electrifying results.

Next week sees a 30th anniversary cinema rerelease of Boyle’s brilliant first feature, Shallow Grave (1994), a tale of friendship, betrayal and corpse disposal that pre-empted the energy, style and savage humour of Trainspotting. I still have the shiny Shallow Grave shovel that I was sent after raving about the film in Q magazine – one of my proudest film memorabilia possessions. That Bafta-winning feature debut, in which Kerry Fox (who had worked with Boyle on the TV series Mr Wroe’s Virgins) outranked upcomers Ewan McGregor and Christopher Eccleston, teamed Boyle with screenwriter John Hodge – a key creative partner.

Jonny Lee Miller, Ewan McGregor, Kevin McKidd and Ewen Bremner in Trainspotting.View image in fullscreen

Along with Trainspotting and its sequel, T2 Trainspotting (2017), Hodge and Boyle worked together on a string of films: the underrated Powell and Pressburgeresque metaphysical romantic caper A Life Less Ordinary (1997; currently unavailable to stream), produced by Boyle’s longstanding collaborator Andrew Macdonald, grandson of Emeric Pressburger; the 2000 Alex Garland adaption The Beach, on which McGregor was foolishly ditched in favour of Leonardo DiCaprio; and the head-spinning psychological thriller Trance (2013). Hodge also wrote a screenplay for the Bond film No Time to Die, which Boyle was set to direct before stepping back from the project. (When I privately asked Boyle if it was his and Hodge’s idea to “kill James Bond”, he said “I can’t comment”. “But who would I tell?” I pleaded, to which Danny replied, “Mark, you are literally a film journalist…”)

Other significant writing collaborators include Simon Beaufoy, whose Boyle projects include Slumdog Millionaire and the gruelling real-life 2010 survival drama 127 Hours; Aaron Sorkin, who ingeniously used three product launches to decode the complex character of Steve Jobs (2015); Jim Cartwright, responsible for Boyle’s made-on-the-fly 2001 BBC films Strumpet and Vacuuming Completely Nude in Paradise (the latter featuring Tim Spall in eye-catching form); Richard Curtis, who made the Beatles disappear in Yesterday (2019); and Frank Cottrell-Boyce, writer of Boyle’s most delightful feature, Millions (2004) – an enchanting tale of a kid finding a bag of English pounds on the eve of the currency being ditched in favour of the euro. It’s a marvel!

Having recently directed the small-screen series Pistol (2022; MGM+), adapted from guitarist Steve Jones’s Sex Pistols memoir, Boyle is now back working with Alex Garland on 28 Years Later, the first in a proposed trilogy of sequels to the post-apocalyptic 28 Days Later (2002) from the team behind the thrillingly trippy sci-fi odyssey Sunshine (2007) – one of my favourite Boyle films, the box-office failure of which was ironically attributed to a bout of sunny weather!

Boyle, right, with Cillian Murphy on the set of Sunshine in 2007.View image in fullscreen

But Boyle’s strangest offering is surely the Hodge-scripted satirical sci-fi short Alien Love Triangle, in which Kenneth Branagh, Courteney Cox and Heather Graham become intergalactically intertwined. Originally intended as one part of a portmanteau feature, Alien Love Triangle languished unseen for years until I secured its 2008 world premiere in Wales’s smallest cinema, La Charrette – a 23-seat converted railway carriage, then situated in a back garden in Gorseinon. Somehow, we persuaded Branagh to attend the premiere (featured on BBC Two’s The Culture Show), at which he walked the shortest red carpet in history. As the original tagline for Trainspotting declared: “Come in Hollywood, your time is up.”

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