T2 Trainspotting is a gritty drama dealing with the harshness of middle-age in a left-behind society. Its characters must deal with past sins, including betrayal, aggravated assault, self-loathing and drug abuse. Its predecessor, of course, dealt with cot death, HIV and toxoplasmosis. Somehow, the films are hilarious and uplifting.
But then, the director of both films once accepted an Academy Award by bounding onto stage and jumping up and down in a just-about convincing impression of Tigger. Danny Boyle hasn’t always given us happy endings, but he has injected an heroic amount of positive personality into films that have depicted natural apocalypse, zombie apocalypse, two different types of backpacking tragedy and more besides.
Oddly enough, Trainspotting would be the starting point for all this, back in 1996. Still (just about) Boyle’s masterpiece, his second feature was the first to feature this now-classic “fade-to-white” ending, and also the last for another decade or so. And since his terrific, eight-time Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire (2008), he’s gone for broke on the optimism with rare divergences (his 2013 film Trance, and a 2011 stage adaptation of Frankenstein). 127 Hours (2011) goes from visceral body-horror to palpable uplift, while even Steve Jobs (2015) somehow capped off two hours of adults shouting at each other with an almost angelic ascendance to nirvana. And of course Slumdog itself was a brilliant, if occasionally excruciating, mishmash of serious social issues and fairytale uplift (wait, couldn’t that also describe 2004’s Millions?).
In many ways, this increasingly frequent recourse to optimism is part and parcel of Boyle’s ascendancy to true star-director status. Since finally hitting the Oscars with Slumdog in 2008-09, Boyle and his films have been on the popular radar more often than not, scoring multiple nominations for both 127 Hours (including Picture) and Steve Jobs. He’s become a “national treasure” for his bravura conception of the 2012 Olympics Opening Ceremony, a feat so iconic in the UK’s consciousness that he was immediately rewarded with a full-on knighthood – which he turned down, because he’s that much a ‘man of the people’. Rather than settle into a kind of nice, hokey comfort zone like Tom Hooper – another Brit who recently won a Best Director Oscar – Boyle has stayed consistently on edge, continuing to add to his filmography with strangely high-octane releases across a variety of genres.
Simply put, Boyle’s profile relies entirely on his optimism. He has become such a consistent name brand because his vision possesses such balance: there are bad things, but the good has vast capacity to win out. Going back to Trainspotting: of five main characters, one died, one was arrested, two were scammed and only Renton escaped, walking away from London (and, symbolically, Leith) with thousands of pounds and a surplus of resolve: no more heroin; choose life. It acknowledges depressing realities but chooses one character who – with much more focus than in the novel – can rise above and shoot for the moon. Anyone can do it; anyone can quit the junk, cut their deadbeat acquaintances, and make something of themselves.
Moral questions, of course, linger. We’re talking stolen money and a shafted Spud. We’re talking a kind of blind, willfully absurdist view of addiction that flirts, with genuine horror, with the realities of gratuitous violence, child neglect, personal neglect and the great discomfort that is cold turkey, but which refocuses itself in the final moments to something almost fairytale-like. And the same criticisms hold, with more acuity, for Slumdog, a film that plunges headfirst into poverty, prostitution, child prostitution, drug running and more – but which pulls back at the end to show one incredibly hopeful example of a fictional character theoretically making it.
But this is, again, the point. We have the good, and we have the bad. Boyle’s skill is in blending the two. His personality (what some may call genius) is in forcing conflicting depictions of the world through his stylised, ever-kinetic lens and concluding that the good will often, in its own way, win out – at least for those who make it happen.
At this point in his 23-year career it’s become, in its own way, his formula; we bounce all over the place for two hours, then soar into the sky. A man loses his arm and realises the value of life. An entire crew of space heroes die, but save the world. A young man turns a lifetime of tragic and horrifying circumstances into a small fortune. A tyrannical egotist reconnects with his daughter.
The only way these summaries make sense is when shaped by a man who rarely writes his own material, but will confidently and convincingly stamp his own wondrous whimsy over anything put in front of him. And that’s the key: even when the endings don’t quite cleft to this optimistic outlook, the audiovisual madness of Boyle’s filmmaking style has so much verve coursing through, like your brain on cotton candy. In every frame of every film, Danny Boyle is choosing life.