The Olympic Games' opening ceremony may have endowed the director Danny Boyle with the status of National Treasure in Britain but it's gritty urban thrillers that are his natural habitat. His new film, Trance, which opens on April 4, is Boyle at his best, shooting the murkier side of London in a heist drama starring James McAvoy, Vincent Cassel and Rosario Dawson.
The film - choppy, loud, occasionally luridly violent - is the result of "what happens to your brain when you're trying to do the Olympics", says Boyle. "The savagery you're not allowed to depict when you've got the job of being family-orientated and celebratory."
He managed that job magnificently well, kickstarting the euphoria that enveloped the London Games with his defiantly idiosyncratic ceremony. Like his films, it had a British backbone while mixing entertainment with social history. Tributes to the NHS and the Industrial Revolution intermingled with J.K. Rowling, Mr Bean playing Chariots of Fire alongside the London Symphony Orchestra, and the Queen parachuting with James Bond.
Boyle's reputation only grew further following his refusal to accept a knighthood on the New Year's honours list.
"I'm very proud to be an equal citizen and I think that's what the opening ceremony was about," he said, adding that he wanted to remain "a man of the people".
In person, he is famously affable and down to earth. Even an Oscar landslide didn't appear to change him. As a director, the "man of the people", or Everyman, is his preferred protagonist whether a junkie, a tourist, a call-centre worker, or an extreme-sports enthusiast. He's brought out the best in Ewan McGregor, Robert Carlyle, James Franco, Cillian Murphy and Dev Patel.
Arguably, the only leading man that didn't work was when he took Leonardo DiCaprio to The Beach, but whisking anyone away from Martin Scorsese is tricky.
Like the New York director, Boyle's strength lies in essaying men with moral foibles. Both were raised Catholic. As a child, Boyle, the Lancashire-born son of a power-plant worker and a cafeteria attendant, wanted to be a priest.
Following the Olympics extravaganza, all eyes are now on what he does next. Even more than they were after his punchy adaptation of Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting announced him as a major British film talent in 1996 or after he won Best Director and Best Picture in 2009 among eight Oscars awarded to Slumdog Millionaire. Would the 56-year-old produce another A Life Less Ordinary disappointment or exhilarate in the manner of 127 Hours?
As it turns out, he has gone back to work on a thriller with John Hodge, the scriptwriter who worked on his first four films Shallow Grave, Trainspotting, The Beach and A Life Less Ordinary. Another of Britain's major male acting talents, James McAvoy, takes the principal role. He plays Simon, an art auctioneer who masterminds the theft of a Goya painting with a gangster, played by French maverick Vincent Cassel. Trouble arises when Simon develops amnesia after stashing the canvas.
Enter American actress Rosario Dawson. She plays a hypnotherapist who, while trying to extract information from the recesses of Simon's mind, opens a can of worms. The boundary between fiction and reality becomes blurred. Trance has elements of memory films such as Memento and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, especially when an unexpected love story emerges but, as with much of Boyle's oeuvre, the film has a British inspiration at its heart: Don't Look Now director Nic Roeg, who twisted time in his editing, making past, present and future interchangeable and fluid.
At a 2009 Bafta tribute, Boyle spoke passionately of the director as "the biggest influence on his career".
Boyle shot Trance in and around East London on a sabbatical from planning the Olympics opening ceremony, which took two years.
"We'd have bizarre days where you're shooting someone's head off on set, and then you'd go into a meeting about the Queen," he told TimeOut this week. The film also continues Boyle's London myth-making, a trend that started with Trainspotting when Renton, in a Dick Whittington moment, tries to escape his drugs past by moving south.
In zombie movie 28 Days Later, he amazed with his eerie shots of empty London streets.
What was all the more remarkable was that he created the dystopia, reminiscent of post 9/11 New York, not by spending millions on computer wizardry, but by stopping the traffic at the crack of dawn and shooting scenes in small bursts.
Ingenuity is the key to Boyle's film-making. He likes "being a little more guerrilla", working with a small crew and budget knowing that spending less than US$20 million ($24 million) essentially guarantees him the final cut. It's a style that owes much to his early career in television when he was a producer on Alan Clarke's Elephant and at the theatre, directing at the Royal Court and five productions for the Royal Shakespeare Company.
In 2011, he directed an award-winning production of Frankenstein at the National Theatre in which Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller swapped the roles of Frankenstein and the monster nightly.
Given the heightened interest in Boyle, it is perhaps unsurprising that the director should now find himself on the gossip pages. He has three twentysomething children from a relationship with the casting director Gail Stevens that ended after two decades in 2003. He started dating his 33-year-old leading lady Dawson after shooting wrapped on Trance. Dawson told Access Hollywood that she made the first move and that despite appearing polar opposites on the surface, they are actually very similar.
Boyle is keeping coy, allowing his work to do the talking.
- TimeOut / Independent