The Underrated Ewan McGregor Performances

From an armed robber to a candlestick, we take a look at 10 of Ewan McGregor's most overlooked roles.

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

Ewan McGregor is a popular and Golden Globe-winning actor, and his great performances in films like Trainspotting, Moulin Rouge!, Fargo, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, and, of course, several Star Wars movies are well known. He’s recently won plaudits for his tortured turn in Stephen King adaptation Doctor Sleep, and is soon to be reprising his role as Jedi master Obi-Wan Kenobi in an upcoming Disney+ series. But McGregor has such a full filmography, spanning 25 years and counting, that it’s easy to overlook some of his less lauded performances.

Here, we’ve collected 10 of his performances that are deserving of attention, though some of them are found in not-so-great films or forgotten television shows, they are still of great impact from the often underrated thespian.

Jane Austen's Emma (TV Show)

Emma

In the same year that Trainspotting was released (1996), McGregor starred in three other films. One of these was Emma, an adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel starring Gwyneth Paltrow in the title role. The film suffered a bit from coming out in the same year as an ITV adaptation starring Kate Beckinsale that was better received, but it’s a good film nonetheless.

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McGregor’s character Frank Churchill is one of Austen’s handsome, charming male flirts who are not as nice, nor as available, as they seem. Churchill is a fairly mild example, as he has no secret love children (unlike Sense an Sensibility’s Willoughby) and has never tried to persuade someone’s sister to elope with him (like Pride and Prejudice’s Wickham). He does, however, have a secret fiancée and plays some slightly cruel games with those around him. It’s a role that takes advantage of McGregor’s natural charm, but gives him the chance to subvert it, and is a must-see for Austen fans–even if the ITV version is slightly better.

Brassed Off

Brassed Off

Brassed Off, the story of a colliery brass band and the closure of their pit, also came out in 1996 with a similar theme to the following year’s The Full Monty. Although the American trailer tried to sell it as a “sexy” romantic comedy revolving around McGregor’s Andy Barrow and Tara Fitzgerald’s Gloria Mullins, it’s actually a semi-tragic dramedy featuring extreme poverty and attempted suicide–but also a very good film and well worth a watch.

As the young romantic lead, McGregor doesn’t get the chance for quite as much high drama as Stephen Tompkinson or Pete Postlethwaite, whose characters are really put through the wringer over the course of the story. However, he does a great job as the simultaneously cynical and idealistic Andy. His slightly embarrassed whistling along with the band after losing his tenor horn in a bet is the perfect combination of comically silly and touchingly serious. If you’re a fan of British drama, this film is a must-see.

ER – The Long Way Around

ER – ‘The Long Way Around’

We’ve avoided award-nominated performances for this list since it’s intended for underrated turns, but we made an exception for this 1997 episode of ER on the grounds that many of us may have forgotten it happened. McGregor received an Emmy nomination for his performance as Duncan, a gunman robbing a convenience store with his cousin. When the owner appears with another gun, both he and the cousin get shot. So as McGregor panics more and more, it’s increasingly clear neither robber really intended to shoot anyone, and McGregor’s performance brings real pathos to the role, allowing the audience to sympathize with an outwardly unsympathetic character.

Oddly, McGregor’s character–who commits an armed robbery in Chicago alongside an American accomplice who is apparently his cousin–is Scottish and speaks with McGregor’s natural Scottish accent. Perhaps the production team wanted to suggest some similarity with his breakthrough Trainspotting character, though poor Renton never committed armed robbery (that was Begbie). It also plays into his fate, as the Scotsman doesn’t know about American police officers…. This is the kind of tragic drama ER always did really well, and McGregor gives it just the right amount of anger and pathos.

Big Fish

Big Fish

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McGregor plays the lead character, young Edward Bloom, in Tim Burton’s Big Fish, but it’s easy to find his performance overshadowed by the showier turns of Helena Bonham Carter and Danny DeVito as a circus ringleader. Still, McGregor is wide-eyed and charming as ever as he woos Alison Lohman’s Sandra, even through bloodied teeth.

What’s easy to forget about this performance is the fine line McGregor has to walk. He is playing the same character as Albert Finney and so needs to be recognizably the same person. However, he isn’t playing the real Edward Bloom; rather he’s the older man’s exaggerated version of his younger self. The whole performance has to be slightly over the top–not quite as much as some of his co-stars, because the lead has to remain engaging and human and somewhat plausible, but just a little bit larger than life. And all while doing a passable Southern American accent. Big Fish is one of Burton’s lighter films, but still perfectly expresses his trademark whimsy and is a great piece of Southern Gothic.

Long Way Round/Long Way Down

Long Way Round/Long Way Down

In 2004, McGregor and Charley Boorman filmed an epic journey by motorbike from London to New York City “the long way round,” i.e. travelling east across Europe, Asia and America (whether the title was inspired by McGregor’s earlier ER appearance is unknown!). They followed it up in 2007 with a journey from John O’Groats, Scotland to Cape Town, South Africa. McGregor makes a charming and engaging host, whether narrowly avoiding blinding himself with petrol, joining a Russian freight team to get along the notorious Road of Bones, or completely failing to be recognized as Obi-Wan Kenobi at Star Wars filming locations in Tunisia despite wearing a T-shirt literally spelling the same “McGregor’ across his back and being followed around by a camera team.

It’s easy to forget that presenting a “reality” show or documentary is also a performance. It’s a very different type of performance–scripting is minimal and the “character” you’re playing is an exaggerated version of yourself. So it’s easy for audiences to imagine that an onscreen host is simply “being themselves.” However, any time a camera is put on someone who is aware of its presence, that person starts to perform the version of themselves they want others to see. This effect is doubled when the person is a host of a multi-episode TV show. Being yourself in such a way that people want to beam you into their living rooms and follow you on an adventure across the globe is as much a performance as any acting job, and both McGregor and Boorman do it well–petrolheads and travel junkies alike should check this out.

The Island

The Island

The Island is not overly well thought of, but it’s really not half bad. It’s a Michael Bay film and has all the things he likes (women in skimpy outfits, explosions), and it’s true that it’s something of a blend of earlier influences (THX 1138, Coma, Logan’s Run, and particularly The Prisoner). However, it’s really quite a thoughtful story, considering things like the ethics of cloning,and it tells it fairly well.

The film also features some great actors, including McGregor in the lead dual role of Tom Lincoln and Lincoln Six Echo. The two are easily distinguishable, and not just because they have different accents and one of them wears glasses; McGregor makes Tom Lincoln just the right amount of mildly unpleasant despite a nice outward appearance while Lincoln Six Echo is more a standardly naïve hero. We won’t make any claims that the film is great art, but it’s a perfectly decent sci-fi story and worth a look on a dull or wet evening.

Angels And Demons

Angels And Demons

Critical reception for this Dan Brown adaptation was mixed, but some have suggested that it’s better than its cinematic predecessor The Da Vinci Code (the novels came out in a reverse order). Since it’s a Dan Brown book that’s been turned into a Hollywood movie, if you’re a fan of facts, truth, and accuracy, stay well away as it might make you weep tears of blood in sheer frustration! That said, it’s a decent enough action movie with lots of gorgeous location shooting (or greenscreen, depending on the scene) in Rome.

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read more: Inferno Review

Technically we’re about to spoil the film by saying that McGregor plays the bad guy, but although that’s supposed to be a last act reveal, it isn’t exactly difficult to figure out. McGregor doesn’t get to the play the bad guy as often as he plays painfully pleasant hero characters, so this is a nice chance to see him in a different role. It’s a fairly standard “secretly evil priest”/“guy-with-a-British-accent-in-a-Hollywood-movie” bad guy performance, but that’s what the film demands, and he does it well. If you enjoyed The Da Vinci Code, you’ll definitely want to check this out.

The Men Who Stare At Goats

The Men Who Stare at Goats

This is a much quirkier, possibly more interesting film: a satirical black comedy loosely based on the U.S. military’s real attempts to use psychic soldiers. The film is self-consciously weird and the subject matter genuinely bizarre, but it’s great fun. Just try not to spend the whole movie wondering how Jeff Daniels’ character gets away with that long plait of hair in the military.

McGregor plays a journalist investigating the program, his casting possibly inspired by Clooney’s character Lyn Cassady’s insistence that they are “Jedi.” Once again, he is playing the straight man to more outlandish performances from George Clooney, Jeff Bridges, Kevin Spacey, and Nick Offerman. It’s an important role though, because if any movie has ever been desperately in need of a straight man to keep it somewhat grounded, it’s this one. If you like your films quirky and slightly surreal, make sure you catch it.

Beauty And The Beast

Beauty and the Beast

The 1991 Disney animated feature Beauty and the Beast is so beloved that this live-action Disney remake wasn’t received as enthusiastically as the earlier Cinderella or The Jungle Book. However, it’s a good film in its own right. It’s lavishly beautiful, the additions to the story are perhaps not entirely necessary but they’re fun enough, Dan Stevens has a great time sneering as the Prince in the prologue, and it assembled a fantastic voice cast for the CGI characters, including McGregor as Lumière the candelabra.

McGregor’s French accent is deliberately over the top, as in the original animated feature, but it stays just the right side of ‘Allo ‘Allo!. His Lumière keeps the joy and fun of the original and forms a delightful double act with Ian McKellen’s Cogsworth, and the two of them are the heart of the CGI-animated household. During the climactic moments, as the household nearly becomes inanimate forever, it is these two who keep the audience on the edge of their seats. Try not to think about how much you love the original and just go with it!

Christopher Robin

Christopher Robin

Christopher Robin is another film built on familiar echoes of the past, especially Mary Poppins and Hook (the latter a film disliked by critics, but generally popular with anyone who was a child when they first saw it). It tells a well worn story of a man struggling with his family’s desire for attention and their simultaneous need for him to remain in employment, and does so with style and humor, and the realistic CGI versions of Winnie the Pooh and friends are good fun.

McGregor, of course, plays the father, with his usual good grace and wide-eyed enthusiasm at appropriate moments. Like several other performances on this list, it’s easy to overlook this apparently straightforward part, but if the central character in a film like this isn’t believable and likeable, the whole film will collapse around them. It’s a somewhat thankless job when the CGI co-stars get all the attention and all the best lines, but McGregor has been on both sides of that fence and he holds this warm and cozy fable together like the pro that he is.