Ewan McGregor has worked with notable directors (Tim Burton, Ridley Scott, Steven Soderbergh, Roman Polanski, etc.) and has had success in film, theater and television (check out his guest appearance on E.R. if you haven’t already). Among the list of about 60 films or so, he never plays the same type of character more than once. He is constantly taking physical and emotional risks for his work and has amassed critical praise for just about every role he has tackled.
Skillfully choosing small, complex films while still remaining mainstream with the participation in films like the Star Wars franchise is what keeps Ewan McGregor both visible to the masses, as well as critically adored. Even when involved in a mediocre film, his performances are almost always met with raves. He also proves to be a strong, supporting character actor by taking supporting roles in films like August: Osage County.
Although he is often overlooked for awards in the United States, he continues to make a name for himself and shows no signs of backing off. His subtlety, even in the face of a grandiose character, is what sets him apart from other actors of his generation (any other generation as well).
10. Cassandra’s Dream (2007)
Woody Allen created this Hitchcock-esque thriller to mixed reactions. It’s a tale of human destruction at its core. It focuses on two brothers (played by Colin Farrell and Ewan McGregor) who, for different reasons, are having financial trouble. They reach out to their uncle for help, who agrees to assist them if they murder someone for him.
The film’s title is derived from the Greek myth of Cassandra. She was given the power of prophecy by Apollo in an attempt to seduce her. She refused, but he did not take the power away. He simply bestowed upon her a curse of never being believed. The brothers name their beloved sail boat “Cassandra’s Dream.”
McGregor portrays the even-keeled brother who, once he gets a taste of murder, thinks he will be able to kill his own brother who is threatening to expose the two of them. At the last minute, he realizes he cannot kill his brother. This prompts the final battle which yields tragedy (no spoilers here). McGregor is chilling as the brother who, seemingly, feels no guilt once the murder is complete.
The movie received mostly bad reviews, so once again the performance is generally overlooked. It is not your typical Woody Allen film either, so the whole film is mostly forgotten. If you enjoyed Allen’s Match Point, which was also a thriller and also generally panned by critics, give this one a try. Any time a director steps out of his or her “norm,” it is interesting to see what unfolds (even if not successful).
9. Black Hawk Down (2001)
Although it’s a smaller role than he usually plays, McGregor is a scene stealer as John “Grimesey” Grimes, a desk clerk put into active duty during the 1993 raid in Mogadishu by the U.S. military. This is an ensemble piece, which makes it difficult to stand out. McGregor both lends support to the ensemble and stands out from it.
The film itself stands out among war films thanks to Ridley Scott’s direction and a “no-frills” attitude toward the event. Some have criticized it for being pro-war, while others state it is anti-war. The fact that it can be viewed as either proves it is a film based in reality and portrays war as a more complex issue than some would believe.
8. The Impossible (2012)
This is a film based on the true story of the Belon family’s experience in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. Given most audience members would be able to recall the news stories from only eight years earlier, the film does not give many details about the tsunami itself. It focuses solely on the family and how they were able to survive the disaster.
The film is directed by J.A. Bayona, known previously for his horror film The Orphanage. He employed the same principle crew for this film (writer, production manager, cinematographer, editor, etc.).
McGregor plays the father of the family who is separated from his wife and oldest son during the tsunami. The film takes us on the journey from both the wife’s and the husband’s perspectives on how they are able to re-unite the family. McGregor is heartbreaking as he makes difficult decisions to leave his young sons in order to more aggressively search for his wife and missing child.
Also, a desperate phone call to his father-in-law in the United States stands out among an already emotional film as a particularly tear-jerking scene. McGregor employs his usual subtle acting techniques for a moving performance that is completely overlooked for awards once again (although the film itself and Naomi Watts picked up quite a few prestigious award nominations that year).
This is a common trend throughout McGregor’s career so far, which is arguably due to his realistic way of making you forget he is acting.
7. Brassed Off (1996)
This is a classic example of the little guy versus big business. It tells the story of a British coal mining community facing the loss of their livelihood. The particular coal miners in question also have a brass band that is more important to them than they realize.
Although the film can be viewed superficially as a light-hearted comedy, it also hints at the darkness people face in times of job loss and despair. It combines romantic comedy with political commentary without ever really categorizing itself as any one particular genre.
McGregor is the leading man in the film’s main romance. He has a relationship with the woman sent to the mine to report back on its profitability. She joins the band while concealing this fact. Their relationship is both realistic and not nearly as schmaltzy as some other romances in the 1990’s. The fact that this film was released in the same year as Trainspotting shows McGregor’s unique ability to tackle and conquer diverse roles.
6. Velvet Goldmine (1998)
If you love glam rock/punk rock and have not seen this film, get on that right now. It is the story of glam rocker Brian Slade, loosely based on David Bowie (portrayed beautifully by Jonathan Rhys Meyers), and his interactions with the public and other performers.
The film focuses on a journalist (portrayed by a pre-Batman Christian Bale) tasked with tracking down the elusive figure to find out what happened to him once he fell out of the favor of the general public. Although his magazine tells him to end the story because there is not enough public demand for the knowledge, he continues the search because of his personal affection and fascination with Slade.
Although not critically lauded, it has a huge following and is definitely worth a watch. The soundtrack alone makes it worth your time. It includes founding members of the punk rock scene like Lou Reed, T.Rex and Brian Eno, as well as more modern artists influenced by these veterans like Placebo, Pulp and Teenage Fan Club. If you know nothing of this era of music, sit back and be educated.
McGregor portrays Curt Wild (a musician based on Iggy Pop) that has a professional and personal relationship with Brian Slade (our David Bowie character). The performance scenes are mesmerizing and are comparable to the energy of Iggy Pop (which is not easy to emulate as you may know if you’ve ever experienced him live).
McGregor’s performance is beyond imitation, though; it is almost a complete transformation. Although the character himself may not be a subtle man, by any means, McGregor never lets it run away from him. He keeps Curt Wild a believable man within the world of glam rock, as well as a drug addict beyond his career peak.