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Macdonald, Kevin (1967-)

Director, Writer

Main image of Macdonald, Kevin (1967-)

Scots-born director Kevin Macdonald has an impressive pedigree as a filmmaker: his maternal grandfather was Emeric Pressburger, screenwriting/producing partner of Michael Powell in The Archers, and his older brother Andrew is a successful film producer (Shallow Grave, Trainspotting, etc).

Pressburger was the subject of Macdonald's first film as director, the TV documentary The Making of an Englishman (Channel 4, tx. 1/1/1995). He went on to make several more documentaries for cinema and TV, often on cinematic personalities: the Scots-born silent-movie actor Eric Campbell (Chaplin's Goliath, ITV, tx. 8/1/1997), Howard Hawks (TV1000, tx. 21/12/1997), Donald Cammell (BBC2, tx. 17/5/1998), Errol Morris (2000) and Humphrey Jennings (Channel 4, tx. 23/12/2000). His other subjects have included the American kinetic sculptor George Rickey (BBC, tx. 17/3/1999), the Kindertransport organisation that rescued Jewish children from Nazi Germany (1998), Mick Jagger (Being Mick, Channel 4, tx. 22/11/2001) and Klaus Barbie (My Enemy's Enemy, 2007).

Macdonald first came to fame with the Oscar-winning feature-length documentary One Day in September (1999) about the 'Black September' Palestinian terrorist attack on Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympic Games in 1972. (The same incident furnished the startpoint for Steven Spielberg's 2005 feature Munich.) While condemning the violence of the attack, Macdonald reserved most of his anger for the inept response of the German authorities. Some critics found the film insensitive in its use of dramatic montages and rock music, but it was widely praised for the power and inventive immediacy of its narrative technique, giving it all the pace and grip of a fictional thriller.

Macdonald followed up with another, even more powerful, dramatised documentary. Touching the Void (2003) was adapted from Joe Simpson's book about his ordeal in the Peruvian Andes in 1985. Climbing with his friend Simon Yates he fell, shattering his leg and dangling over a crevasse on the end of a rope. Yates, thinking his friend probably dead and in any case unable to help him, took the wrenching decision to cut the rope. Scarcely credibly, Simpson survived the fall and the agonising four-day crawl back to safety. Macdonald doubles up the roles, with Simpson and Yates telling their story on camera and in voice-over, while a pair of actors play them on the mountain locations. Even though we know the outcome - Simpson, after all, is alive and on-screen - the tension and emotional impact of the story are overwhelming. The film triumphed at the box-office, picking up a stack of awards.

In its format, Touching the Void verges on being a feature film - though as Macdonald says, "the documentary is a generous basket that can hold a lot of different things". He now moved into straight feature-film making with The Last King of Scotland (UK/Germany/US, 2006), adapted (by Peter Morgan) from Giles Foden's novel about a young Scots doctor who becomes personal physician and confidant to Idi Amin. From Forest Whitaker he drew a tour de force performance as Amin that captured the man's mannerisms and lethal range of moods with terrifying conviction, well supported by James McAvoy as the brash young doctor who, at first flattered by the status bestowed on him, gradually finds himself drawn into a moral quagmire. Despite budgetary limitations Macdonald insisted in shooting in Uganda, a move that paid off in terms of atmosphere and authenticity.

Likewise when making State of Play (US/Germany/UK/France/Japan, 2009), an adaptation of the 2003 BBC-TV political thriller, Macdonald held out for shooting in Washington DC (where the remake was set) rather than some less fraught city that could have stood in for the US capital. The move adds to the authenticity of the film, but overall the production suffers by comparison with the TV series. In the film version, script, roles and situations all seem pushed a few degrees closer to standard movie cliché, and much of the original's subtlety is lost. But within those limitations Macdonald's direction is tight and pacy, effectively heightening the paranoid mood and keeping up the tension.

Macdonald followed up with his first period film, The Eagle (UK/US, 2011), adapted from Rosemary Sutcliffe's classic young people's novel 'The Eagle of the Ninth'. Like Neil Marshall's Centurion, released the previous year, it deals with the still-unexplained disappearance of the Roman Ninth Legion somewhere north of Hadrian's Wall early in the 2nd century AD. The cast includes Channing Tatum as the son of one of the lost legionaries, trying to discover his father's fate, and Jamie Bell as the slave who accompanies him. Macdonald also acted as overall director of the multi-authored documentary Life in a Day (2011), in which film-makers from all over the world contributed their views of life as they saw it on July 24th, 2010.

Philip Kemp

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Thumbnail image of Touching the Void (2003)Touching the Void (2003)

Mountaineering documentary, as gripping as any action feature

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