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Boyle, Danny (1956-)

Director, Producer, Writer

Main image of Boyle, Danny (1956-)

From his debut feature, Shallow Grave (1994), Danny Boyle has established himself as one of the liveliest and most unpredictable of British directors, adept at shifting genres and bringing a personal quality to whatever he tackles. For the most part - barring the debacle of The Beach (US/UK/Thailand, 2000) - he's contrived to keep Hollywood at arm's length.

Boyle was born in 1956 in Bury, Lancashire, of working-class Irish stock, and grew up an avid cinemagoer. Even so, he started out in the theatre since it "seemed a much easier and more accessible way of getting in to the arts". He began with the Joint Stock Company, then joined the Royal Court (1982-87) as artistic director of the Theatre Upstairs. He also directed five productions for the RSC.

In 1987 Boyle moved into television drama at BBC Northern Ireland, producing Alan Clarke's daringly original Elephant (tx. 25/1/1989) and directing some hard-hitting plays about the Troubles and a couple of episodes of Inspector Morse for ITV. But the series that made his name was Mr Wroe's Virgins (BBC, 1993), a period drama set in 1820s Lancashire about a charismatic preacher (Jonathan Pryce) who sets up his own church and recruits seven young women to service in his household. The potent mix of sex, scandal and religion made for compelling viewing, and confirmed Boyle's skill at directing actors and creating atmosphere.

On the strength on Mr Wroe's Virgins, Boyle was contacted by producer Andrew Macdonald and screenwriter John Hodge, who were seeking a director for Shallow Grave. A pitch-black exercise in lethal comedy, it immediately appealed to Boyle as an admirer of the Coen brothers' Blood Simple (US, 1984). A trio of young professional people share a stylish flat in Edinburgh. They take in a fourth, who promptly dies of an overdose leaving behind a caseful of loot - which his erstwhile flatmates ill-advisedly decide to keep.

The resultant film lastingly changed the image of British cinema, at that time best known for tasteful Merchant-Ivory-style literary adaptations. The bite and energy of Boyle's direction and his (and Hodge's) unsentimental, even cruel take on his characters (Christopher Eccleston, Kerry Fox and Ewan McGregor headed the cast), coupled with the disquieting beauty of his imagery, all felt refreshingly different.

The next film from Macdonald, Hodge and Boyle, Trainspotting (1995), stomped even more gleefully on the genteel reputation of British cinema - and of the Scots capital. Adapted from Irvine Welsh's cult novel set among the young heroin addicts of Edinburgh's seedier districts, it replaced Shallow Grave's visual elegance and poised, cruel humour with a mass of scatological detail and a manic cackle of wrecked mirth. Ewan McGregor headed a career-making cast list that included Robert Carlyle, Ewen Bremner, Jonny Lee Miller and Kelly Macdonald. Urban Scots accents and scabrous subject-matter did nothing to harm the film's huge international success.

Turning down the fourth film in the Alien sequence, Boyle and his colleagues embarked instead on a screwball rom-com, A Life Less Ordinary (1997), with McGregor and Cameron Diaz as young lovers on the run. Their progress is tracked, in a whimsical sub-plot, by a pair of angels. Boyle's high-octane stylistic tricks, suited to his first two films, here seemed flashy and extraneous. The film pleased neither the critics nor the public but, undeterred, the trio went full-on Hollywood with an adaptation of Alex Garland's tropical adventure novel The Beach, dropping McGregor (initially slated to play the backpacker in Thailand who stumbles on a seemingly idyllic hippy community) in favour of Leonardo DiCaprio, then at his hottest in the wake of Titanic (US, 1997). The result felt empty and inconsequential, its sub-Conradian pretensions rendered all the more vapid by the high-budget gloss.

Following a couple of frothy made-for-TV squibs - Strumpet (BBC2, tx. 7/10/2001) and Vacuuming Completely Nude in Paradise (BBC2, tx. 30/9/2001) - Boyle's career took an unexpected turn with his first horror movie, 28 Days Later (2002). Set in a Britain where a virus released from a lab has turned most of the population into ravening cannibals - in effect, zombies who can run - it owed a sizeable debt to George A. Romero's Dead trilogy; but it was shot (on DV) with a raw energy that made its borrowings seem fresh, and scored a substantial box-office hit. In total contrast, Boyle followed up with a fantasy comedy for kids, Millions (2005), which gently echoed Shallow Grave with a tale of two young brothers suddenly enriched when a suitcase full of cash mysteriously falls from the sky.

Genre-hopping yet again, Boyle moved into full-on science-fiction mode with Sunshine (US/UK, 2007), in which a multi-national bunch of astronauts are sent fifty years hence to re-ignite the dying sun. Despite the implausible premise the film starts promisingly, with impressive visuals, but descends well before the end into a sententious mishmash. Meanwhile Boyle and Alex Garland (now his regular screenwriter) stepped back from the 28 Days sequel, 28 Weeks Later (UK/US/Spain, 2007), acting as executive producers.

Boyle's biggest hit to date came with Slumdog Millionaire (2008), a rags-to-riches fairytale set in the slums of Bombay. Adapted from Vikas Swarup's novel 'Q&A', it tells of an ill-treated slum-dwelling lad who grows up to win millions on a TV gameshow and, in the final reel, is reunited with his childhood sweetheart. Blatantly crowd-pleasing stuff that made atmospheric use of its Bombay locations, it was duly rewarded with eight Oscars (including Best Director ), a slew of other awards and massive international box-office returns.

With the restless versatility that had by now become his trademark, Boyle downsized to make 127 Hours (US/UK/Australia, 2010): the true story of Aron Ralston, an American extreme-sports hiker who, while hiking alone in the Utah desert, got his arm pinned under a falling boulder in a deep ravine. Unable to free himself, he amputated his arm with a blunt penknife. James Franco gives an intense performance as Ralston, and Boyle shows remarkable ingenuity in finding ways to hold audience interest in what's essentially a one-person-to-camera movie.

Philip Kemp

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Trainspotting (1996)Trainspotting (1996)

Film about Edinburgh junkies that became a cultural phenomenon

Thumbnail image of Elephant (1989)Elephant (1989)

Eighteen people are randomly murdered in Northern Ireland.

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Thumbnail image of Hodge, John (1963-)Hodge, John (1963-)


Thumbnail image of Macdonald, Andrew (1966-)Macdonald, Andrew (1966-)