Ewan McGregor is back in cinemas once again as Christopher Robin – now a family man living in London – who receives a surprise visit from his old childhood pal, Winnie-the-Pooh. With a career of 25 years and counting, we decided it was a good time to celebrate the fine work of the actor from Perth. Prepare yourself as we give our thoughts on his top 10 performances.
10. Lumiere in Beauty and the Beast
There were other candidates to take the number ten slot in this countdown. It would have been easy, potentially more rational, to go with the likes of A Life Less Ordinary, Black Hawk Down, or The Impossible. These are all good performances, but we’re here to celebrate the good man. There is no better way than to honour his so-bad-its-good French accent as Lumiere in Beauty and the Beast. Chewing through scenery and songs like there’s no tomorrow, McGregor turns everything up to 11 with a wondrously pungent French accent. The thing is, he was never going to outdo Jerry Orbach’s perfect vocals from the 1991 original. Our Ewan knows this, and so he takes his place perfectly in the film, adds his twist, and provides as much joy as he possibly can. That’s the sign of a good actor.
9. The Ghost in The Ghost Writer
In this now oft-forgotten thriller, McGregor plays an unnamed ghost writer, who agrees to finish the memoirs of former prime minister Adam Lang, a more-than-game Pierce Brosnan. In this taut atmospheric number that favours pensive pauses over action, McGregor makes for a perfect fit. He plays the classic journalist with a lush boozy, miserable, cynicism. Working from a Robert Harris novel and script, the Scottish actor is the perfect choice as the audience’s entry point. As he goes on the hunt looking to uncover key information to the mystery that is Adam Lang, he drives the dead man’s car and the sat-nav “remembers” his previous journey. This guides him, ghost-like, to a vital clue. Thrilling stuff.
8. Edward Bloom in Big Fish
Big Fish is an outrageously charming film. From the birth of our protagonist, to the charming Albert Finney in the bath tub, Tim Burton’s 2003 number beguiles you from beginning to end. The filling to this enchanting sandwich is our man McGregor. He plays the young Edward Bloom, with wide-eyed glee, and a smile that seems permanently stitched upon his face. In typical McGregor fashion, he manages to balance that unparalleled idealism and hope, with a tangible humanity and realism to avoid dipping to heavily into the cartoonish. Beautifully counter-balanced with a stony-faced Billy Crudup, Big Fish delivers its quirky, warming tale of reconciliation with aplomb.
7. Catcher Block in Down with Love
So often the remakes or tributes to classic genres or movies fall flat. There is a magic missing. The script’s too tight, the direction’s too loose, or the actors aren’t ‘feeling’ it. Ignore the extremely varying reviews; embrace Peyton Reed’s 2003 hit Down with Love! The story goes that it’s 1962, and feminist Barbara Novak (Renée Zellweger) pens a best-selling book that details the drawbacks of love. Catcher Block (McGregor), decides to expose Barbara as a fraud by making her fall in love with him. McGregor is on fire at the charming lead, helping the film score its self-aware winks, while poking holes at the conventions these old 1950/60s comedies ran on. One of McGregor’s strong suits is being ‘game’ for anything. You can tell in his work that the Scot will give anything a go when the script is right. In Down with Love, the script is more than right, and McGregor shines brighter than any star. If there’s a more joyous scene of a man getting dressed accompanied by a fantastic David Hyde Pierce, I’ve yet to see it.
6. Curt Wild in Velvet Goldmine
Much like its lead superstar Curt Wild, Velvet Goldmine is full of excess: too many lead characters, an orgy of sights and sounds, and fashions a structure out of Curt Wild. This fictional biography follows British journalist Arthur Stuart (Christian Bale) as he investigates the career of 1970s glam superstar Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), who was heavily influenced rebellious American singer Curt Wild. With electrifying potential, set in a neo-psychedelic landscape, Todd Haynes’ film is an intoxicating tribute to David Bowie. McGregor called his role “a birthday present of a part” and it is easy to see why. The actor brings a wondrous decadence and wicked incandescence to Wild. The accent’s a bit of an issue – it always is – but McGregor’s showmanship wins the day. See the moments when Wild is on stage, your vision becomes blinkered and overwhelmed by his sensational presence.
5. Oliver in Beginners
In the last two entries, we’ve highlighted McGregor’s strength at being the perfect fit for the wild and wink-laden projects that require that extra gamesmanship. Mike Mills’ Beginners highlights McGregor’s second ace in the pack. The actor has a tremendous ability at the soft, the subtle, and the honest. Oliver is played with warmth, hope, and lovely humanity that is the perfect ingredient to Mills’ tribute to his own father. The film belongs to Christopher Plummer as Hal, Oliver’s father, who admits his terminal cancer and comes out as a gay. He deservedly won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, but without McGregor’s ace normality guiding the central plot, Plummer could not have shone as bright as he does.
4. Alex Law in Shallow Grave
The year is 1995. Cool Britannia is in full flow. Danny Boyle’s debut is helping lead the charge with Shallow Grave, a violent, realistic, cut-above-the-rest thriller that demands your attention. A star is born in the form of Ewan Gordon McGregor. As Alex, one of three Edinburghians hunting for a fourth flatmate, McGregor showcases a tremendous energy, as the cheeky and vain ‘hack’ journalist. He’s a magnetic and relentless presence that matches Boyle’s pulsating direction blow-for-blow. The actor’s zeal for every scene is infectious; a vibrancy that’s been an ever-present force throughout his career. As the downward spiral of our protagonists expediates exponentially, your eyes are always drawn to McGregor. The Scottish star had arrived on the scene and has thankfully never left.
3. Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars: Episodes I, II, and III
You love them, you hate them. They’ll age with time, they’re a crime against cinema. The prequels are a part of cinema’s history, and every viewer has their own opinions and rankings of them. The one constant throughout is the quality of McGregor. Given one of the toughest roles throughout the series, the actor had to take on the mantle of the irreproachable Alec Guinness. With The Phantom Menace, his attempts to nail the characterisation, postures, and diction of Guinness is honourable. While many may argue the films decline in quality, McGregor undoubtedly improves as the trilogy goes on. He gives us a Kenobi, who is knowledgeable, witty, and flawed as he must battle his allegiances and feelings. There is a depth and richness to his character that is rarely found from his cast mates. It’s unlikely we’ll see him don the robes again, but at least we’ll always have the prequels.
2. Christian in Moulin Rouge!
It’s impossible to forget Moulin Rouge!. This broad-strokes, all-in, fantastical musical is akin to bank robbery. Baz Luhrmann backed up the van, loading in every colour, sound, motion, and excess he could, and delivered them all to us. On the great canvas of the cinema screen, Luhrmann delivered a postmodern hug, with absinthe on its breath, that bedazzles and befuddles in equal measure. No other actor could have played Christian, the would-be writer enthralled by Nicole Kidman’s Satine. He embodies every big-eyed, loved-up puppy the world has ever witnessed, his existence and narrative defined by Satine. McGregor is perfect. He dances with joy in his heels, he belts the tunes of ‘Come What May’ and ‘Your Song’ as if his life depended upon it. In fact, as if your life depended on it. When watching Moulin Rouge!, it’s as if they do. The intoxicating fantasy Luhrmann concocts enchants 17 years on from its release, and a lot of credit lays at the feet of McGregor.
1. Mark Renton in Trainspotting
What else could it be? The thing is, this is not a lazy number one. Heroin addict Mark Renton is Ewan McGregor’s best performance by a long, long margin. Shallow Grave was the crest of the Cool Britannia wave, Trainspotting was the face. Danny Boyle’s relentless, astonishing, tragic adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s novel scared Hollywood white. No-one had seen anything like this. Upon release, British Cinema, past, present and future, was redefined in just 93 minutes. The raw power of Trainspotting comes from Boyle’s sublime direction, a blistering soundtrack, tremendous supporting roles from the entire cast, and a script of magnificent intensity by John Hodge. The star of the show, however, is McGregor. As oft-mentioned throughout this piece, McGregor’s magnetism monopolises every scene. He is the heartbeat of this film. In every scene, he shines. The outrageous energy he conjures in the opening foot chase while delivering the ‘Choose Life’ speech is his crowning achievement. As we’ve seen so frequently in his career, McGregor’s ability to deliver a film’s vital scenes exactly how the director imagined, and what the film requires is unmatched. With Trainspotting, he creates an iconic character, an iconic film, and an iconic movement.