Ewan McGregor: A Viewer's Guide

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Velvet Goldmine’s opening epigram – “Although what you are about to see is a work of fiction, it should nevertheless be played at maximum volume” – could be equally well applied to Ewan McGregor’s CV. Everyone’s favourite Davidoff-scented Scotsman has always been capable of high volume. From Shallow Grave and Trainspotting to Moulin Rouge! and last year’s Beginners, the roles he’s picked have rarely lacked a subversive edge. This week’s Salmon Fishing In The Yemen, an altogether gentler adventure, gives the perfect excuse to delve into the McGregor tackle-box and sort the hot tuna from the rancid sprats.

ESSENTIAL VIEWING: Trainspotting (1996)

Renton is still Ewan McGregor’s definitive film role – and if you’re from anywhere near America, where Trainspotting found itself subtitled, it’s probably still counted as his only foreign-language part. We’re only kinda kidding about that, because McGregor’s command of Irving Welsh’s slang lends the grimy smacktacular a syntax of all its own, although you’d need to be fluent in Leith jargon to decipher all of it. With his shaved head, toothpick-thin frame and deathly pallor, you wouldn’t know whether to feed Renton up or hose him down (after that loo scene, it’s definitely the latter). No matter, his easy charm fits in perfectly alongside Jonny Lee Miller, Ewen Bremner and Kevin McKidd, while his manic energy courses through the veins of Danny Boyle’s film. Choose life? ‘Course he did.

ESSENTIAL VIEWING: Moulin Rouge! (2001)

With McGregor on the cusp of big things, this looked like a ballsy choice. Baz Luhrmann’s high-stepping spectacular could easily have been more folly than folie, and musical history is littered with actors whose voices haven’t matched their thespian talents. But McGregor succeeds where Marlon Brando (Guys And Dolls) and Pierce Brosnan (Mamma Mia!) failed, and produces a credible vocal performance as Parisian scribe Christian. Besides, if you can handle Jim Broadbent belting out ‘Like A Virgin’ then there’s little to fear McGregor’s breathy rendition of ‘Come What May’ or the voluptuously saucy romance he conjures up Nicole Kidman’s fishnet fantasy girl.

ESSENTIAL VIEWING: Shallow Grave (1994)

Long before the casting of The Beach temporarily soured things between actor and director, McGregor and Danny Boyle’s partnership yielded dark alchemy in the shape of Trainspotting and this, one of the blackest comedies ever committed to celluloid. Set in Edinburgh, filmed in Glasgow and possibly inspired in hell, it crams more death, drugs and dismemberment into its trim runtime than a weekend at Tony Montana’s. McGregor is the inaptly-named Alex Law, a louche urban professional and flatmate of the equally obnoxious David (Christopher Eccleston) and Juliet (Kerry Fox), who come into possession of one of those bits of movie luggage that invariably bring bloody moider in their wake (see also: No Country For Old Men, Pulp Fiction, Kiss Me Deadly). The flatmates’ moral dilemma – to keep the cash or hand it over – gives the cast’s resident Scotsman plenty of chance to flaunt all his persuasive charm, while the climax… well, does he survive it? You decide.

RECOMMENDED: The Ghost (2010)

Roman Polanski’s stock may not be exactly soaring in the world at large but actors continue to queue round the block to work with him – and you can see why. McGregor’s turn came in this adaptation of Robert Harris’s political potboiler, a juicy role that offered just the kind of morally-compromised character he excels at playing. That man – known only as ‘The Ghost’ – does a hack-for-hire writing job for discredited ex-PM Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan), an exiled politico who wants to set his Iraq war record straight. As it slowly dawns on the Ghost that the toxic tale is far from over, you can imagine the likes of Hackman, Beatty or Pacino owning this kind of role back in ‘70s, but McGregor does a manful job of carrying a thriller that’s much longer on dialogue than set pieces. A register of discomfort, a note of fear and a sustained sense of disappointment all add up to a character who creeps passively through a personal New England hell.

RECOMMENDED: Big Fish (2003)

The younger Edward Bloom to Albert Finney’s older model, McGregor brings a lightness of touch to this charmingly oddball fairy tale. He shares the screen with werewolves, conjoined twins and big hair giants – we think we even spotted Trainspotting’s cold turkey at one point – in one of those fantasies that seem to flow only “from the imagination of Tim Burton”. His screen time is limited – those looking for more McGregor for their money might want to turn to his equally good turns in Beginners or I Love You Phillip Morris – but he’s a big presence in the film and convincingly nails the tricky Southern accent in likeable fashion. Even if we’re not sure we can believe a word he says.

FOR THE FAN: Down With Love (2003)

If you’re ever pining for that innocent time when Doris Day and Rock Hudson grabbed the romantic comedy and dragged it out for martinis and dancing, there’s fun to be had in Peyton Reed’s pre-Mad Men confection. With Ewan McGregor to the fore as Catcher Block, a conceited star reporter with matinee looks and an ego to match, and Renée Zellweger as the feminist writer he has a cynical eye on, it takes the outmoded attitudes of the ‘50s and gives them a darn good razzing. The dapper McGregor makes a suave “man’s man, ladies’ man, man about town” and the two stars even share a musical moment that will delight those Moulin Rouge! fans hankering for a little more from those honeyed vocal chords.

ONE TO AVOID: Star Wars: Episode 1 - The Phantom Menace (1999)

Cassandra can keep dreaming and The Island can breathe easy because The Phantom Menace takes the honours in this category. It’s not that it’s McGregor’s worst performance – though his Alec Guinness impression just serves to remind us that he’s not Alec Guinness – or that this is the biggest stinker on his resume; merely that its mediocrity has endured thanks to all those re-releases. In fairness, he’s not helped by having to regularly deliver cloth-eared dialogue (You have a bad feeling about this buster?), but the results still aren’t too clever. He may be nephew to Wedge Antilles (aka Denis Lawson), but McGregor’s stint as a trainee Jedi is best consigned to the nearest intergalactic trash compactor.