Ewan McGregor’s 20 best movie performances – ranked!

With his new film, The Birthday Cake, out next week, we take a look at the best roles of the Scottish actor – and no, Phantom Menace is not on it

20. Moulin Rouge! (2001)

Lip-syncing in Dennis Potter’s 1993 musical drama Lipstick on Your Collar was all very well. Crooning for real opposite Nicole Kidman, McGregor looks and sounds strained to say the least. But then his entire floundering performance represents a mere fender bump in Baz Luhrmann’s car crash of a musical. “His idea of conveying high emotion is to let his mouth hang wide open,” noted the critic Anthony Quinn.

19. Little Voice (1998)

Reunited with his Brassed Off director, Mark Herman, for this adaptation of Jim Cartwright’s play The Rise and Fall of Little Voice, McGregor has the least interesting role as a telephone engineer smitten with a timid songbird (Jane Horrocks). Both are elbowed off the screen by Brenda Blethyn as the girl’s gaudy mother and Michael Caine as a grotesque impresario.

18. Big Fish (2003)

Tim Burton’s Fellini-esque, circus-flavoured collection of tall tales stars McGregor as Edward Bloom, an Alabama dreamer of assorted occupations, from bank robber to travelling salesman of novelty robotic hands. Sharing the part with Albert Finney, he responds blithely to whatever the plot throws at him, including a pair of conjoined twins and a giant with a brow like a Buick.

Bruce Snowden, Ewan McGregor and Danny DeVito in Big Fish.
Bruce Snowden, Ewan McGregor and Danny DeVito in Big Fish. Photograph: Columbia/Everett/Rex

17. T2 Trainspotting (2017)

Neglectful of its female characters, and caught between nostalgia and navel-gazing, the long-delayed sequel is a bit of a downer. Still, it’s poignant to see McGregor return as a less spry Renton. There are some nice touches – the film begins with his feet pounding the treadmill at a soulless gym rather than on the needle-strewn streets of Edinburgh – though the updated Choose Life monologue is cringeworthy.

16. Down With Love (2003)

Taking the Far from Heaven approach to the Pillow Talk era of romantic comedies would have been a sound idea had this not been directed by hack-for-hire Peyton Reed. The film operates at undergraduate-revue level, and it’s left to plucky, knowing performances by McGregor (as a self-regarding cad) and Renée Zellweger (as a glam author with a proto-feminist message) to add fizz.

15. Emma (1996)

It was a shock after his early films with Danny Boyle to find McGregor among the period niceties of this middling US adaptation of Jane Austen’s comedy of manners. But not an unpleasant one: there’s an undercurrent of unruliness to his portrayal of Frank Churchill that suits the character, while his impromptu duet with Gwyneth Paltrow is a daft delight.

McGregor with (from left) Alan Cumming, Juliet Stevenson and Polly Walker in Emma.
McGregor with (from left) Alan Cumming, Juliet Stevenson and Polly Walker in Emma. Photograph: Allstar/Cinetext/Miramax

14. Brassed Off (1996)

A coalmine in early 1990s Yorkshire is targeted for closure. But wait! Can the local brass band come to the rescue? Pete Postlethwaite is at his valiant best as the band leader fighting the good fight despite his own ailing health; McGregor, fresh from Trainspotting, is there to bring in the youth audience. A primer for those viewers not yet ready for Ken Loach.

13. Cassandra’s Dream (2007)

Not in fact the disaster of rumour, this bizarre thriller improves significantly on Match Point, Woody Allen’s previous exercise in London-based murder. Faint praise, perhaps. But at the heart of Cassandra’s Dream is a fraught, nicely judged fraternal dynamic between McGregor, as the pushy wide boy, and Colin Farrell, as the uncertain patsy, both drawn into their uncle’s bloodthirsty plans. Dubious cockney accents increase the pleasure.

12. Haywire (2011)

McGregor’s forays into action territory have been of variable achievement: he was listless in The Phantom Menace and functional in The Island, but clearly enjoyed himself as a skin-peeling villain in Birds of Prey. Steven Soderbergh’s snappy thriller, though, is the pick of the crop. McGregor, Michael Fassbender and Channing Tatum are among the men foolish enough to go up against mixed martial arts champion Gina Carano.

With Samuel Joslin and Oaklee Pendergast in The Impossible.
With Samuel Joslin and Oaklee Pendergast in The Impossible. Photograph: Allstar/Entertainment One

11. The Impossible (2012)

This account of the 2004 tsunami in south-east Asia is a different sort of disaster movie. McGregor is holidaying in Thailand with his family when nature turns nasty. Based on one Spanish family’s ordeal, all names were anglicised to boost the film’s commercial chances.

10. Shallow Grave (1994)

This is where it began for the Trainspotting gang: McGregor, director Boyle, producer Andrew Macdonald and writer John Hodge. Their first collaboration was a callous semi-comic thriller about three friends (Kerry Fox and Christopher Eccleston are the others) whose new flatmate (Keith Allen) expires in his bed, leaving behind a stash of dirty money. All flash, gore and glibness, the movie makes absolutely no sense, but feels now like a harbinger of the worst excesses of the 1990s: cruel Britannia indeed.

9. Beginners (2010)

Oliver (McGregor), a graphic artist and lost soul in LA, bumps into Anna (Mélanie Laurent), an actor with laryngitis, who communicates via pen and paper. You’ve heard of the romcom convention of the “meet cute”: this is the meet mute. They make an agreeable couple, but both actors must have known they were surrendering the movie to Christopher Plummer, who won an Oscar for playing Oliver’s 75-year-old father, Hal, freshly widowed and just out of the closet when cancer strikes.

With Jim Carrey in I Love You Phillip Morris.
With Jim Carrey in I Love You Phillip Morris. Photograph: Everett Collection/Rex Features

8. I Love You Phillip Morris (2009)

“This really happened – it really did,” reads the opening title of this loopier-than-life comedy about a con artist (Jim Carrey) who keeps breaking out of prison to be with his true love. And why wouldn’t he, when that beau is played by McGregor at his most winning? Perhaps it’s the knowledge that the lion’s share of the lunacy rests on Carrey, but McGregor has rarely seemed so relaxed; Philip French compared his diffident performance to Richard Beckinsale’s work in the sitcom Porridge.

7. The Pillow Book (1996)

Nagiko (Vivian Wu) wants a lover who can satisfy her between the sheets – of paper, that is. She’s looking for a calligrapher with lead in his pencil and ink in his pot. Step forward McGregor, who offers his body as parchment for her to write on. No prizes for guessing from this synopsis that the director is Peter Greenaway. But the arthouse provocateur is at his gentlest here, while McGregor manages to seem enigmatic despite spending much of the film buck-naked.

6. The Ghost (2010)

In Roman Polanski’s expert adaptation of Robert Harris’s Blair-era political thriller, McGregor is a hoot as the ghostwriter hired to deliver the memoirs of a liberal prime minister (Pierce Brosnan) accused of war crimes after turning suspected terrorists over to the CIA for torture. McGregor is sweetly bumbling, so ill-equipped for derring-do that he fails dismally even at pedalling a bicycle down a gravel driveway. Only Olivia Williams, in the My Blair Lady role, is having more fun than he is.

The Ghost.
The Ghost. Photograph: Allstar/Summit Entertainment/Sportsphoto Ltd

5. A Life Less Ordinary (1997)

Time has been kind to McGregor’s third collaboration with Boyle, which looks now like their most radical film together: a madcap comic thriller in which he plays a hapless kidnapper whose hostage (Cameron Diaz) runs rings around him; Holly Hunter and Delroy Lindo look on as angels. After this, the paths of actor and director diverged for two decades when Leonardo DiCaprio was cast over McGregor in The Beach. “He feels we betrayed him,” Boyle said, “and I think he’s right.”

4. Doctor Sleep (2019)

Never mind Room 237: the idea of a sequel to The Shining seemed destined for Room 101. How surprising, then, to find not only that the movie has a sensibility, rhythm and tone distinct from the original, but also that it is one of the most patient, unnerving horror films of recent years. McGregor is nicely understated as the adult Danny Torrance, still wrestling with his extrasensory abilities, while Rebecca Ferguson is terrifying as a kind of dapper dementor in a top hat.

3. Trainspotting (1996)

Long before a sweat-soaked McGregor ended up on a million student bedroom walls, it was clear that this breakneck, bittersweet film of Irvine Welsh’s novel would persuade the world to Choose Ewan. Director Boyle borrows the visual pizzazz of A Clockwork Orange, so it’s only fitting that his lead should evoke the devilish mischief of a young Malcolm McDowell. The highlight: his trip down the Worst Toilet in Scotland, which turns into a euphoric underwater fantasy of which Powell and Pressburger would be proud.

Velvet Goldmine.
Velvet Goldmine. Photograph: Allstar/Cinetext/Channel 4

2. Velvet Goldmine (1998)

Todd Haynes’s glittery spin on Citizen Kane was greeted with bewilderment by a world that had anticipated Trainspotting in platform shoes. “Nice soundtrack, shame about the film,” sneered the Face magazine. But even haters could surely find love in their hearts for McGregor’s delirious turn as Curt Wild, an Iggy-style rocker raised by wolves and frazzled by ECT. He cops off with Jonathan Rhys Meyers (as the Bowie-esque hero) and Christian Bale (as a starry-eyed fan) and drops his kecks on stage. Gadzooks!

1. Young Adam (2003)

The one unarguable masterpiece on McGregor’s CV is David Mackenzie’s remorseless adaptation of Alexander Trocchi’s 1954 novel of death and desire. As Joe, an amoral drifter toiling on a barge between Glasgow and Edinburgh, McGregor is chillingly exact in evoking what the literary critic John Pringle called “the narcissistic neurotic mess that is Joe’s consciousness”. He manages the miracle of making the character’s outward blankness compelling. The rest of the cast are superb, not least Tilda Swinton and Emily Mortimer, with whom McGregor shares some of the most disquieting sex scenes in modern cinema. Fingers crossed he has it in him to be this brave again one day.

Contributor

Ryan Gilbey

The GuardianTramp

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