“The more people know about an actor, the less convincing they become. A bit of mystery’s a good thing.” – Robert Carlyle
For many, Robert Carlyle will be instantly remembered for his live-wired intensity as Begbie in Danny Boyle’s now-iconic film Trainspotting. However, for a younger filmmaking generation, it may well be for the terrifying opening scene of 28 weeks later. In pursuit by a ravenous pack of violent ‘infected’, Don (Carlyle) pants desperately through a desolate cottage, placed lovingly in the Dover countryside. Watching companions young and old become consumed by the plague of undead, Don manages to find escape through an upstairs window, leaving his wife behind to escape the nightmarish situation down the river at the bottom of the garden.
Visceral screams from the leading cast, in addition to the dingy aesthetic, became responsible for multiple restless nights across the world upon the film’s release, with this opening scene perfectly illustrating Carlyle’s strongest characteristics. Sincere, measured but also desperately aggressive, Carlye’s characters often suggest a darker side with a guise of a gruff family man.
This would be, however, an identity he would create throughout the course of his career, particularly in the 1990s where he would contribute to the rising cinematic success of the British film industry. Given a breakthrough into cinema by Ken Loach following a handful of forays into daytime TV, his debut feature Riff-Raff saw him unite with a now-iconic British cast including Ricky Tomlinson and Peter Mullan, addressing concerns of social justice as Loach so likes to explore. Setting a trend for the remainder of the decade, Robert Carlyle would become synonymous with a growing royalty of British actors, garnering global popularity for their cinematic success.
Though his role as Renard in James Bond’s final outing of the millennium, The World is Not Enough, may have catapulted him to the limelight of Hollywood, his trilogy of totally unrelated films that sandwich themselves in the middle of the 1990s would truly establish himself as a British icon. Undoubtedly, Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting, Peter Cattaneo’s The Full Monty, and Alan Parker’s Angela’s Ashes well illustrates the landscape of the marketable British film industry, with each of these films exemplar’s of their given genre. Trainspotting’s playful electricity would define an electric, pop-crime genre marked by Guy Ritchie, whilst Richard Curtis would approve of The Full Monty’s straddling of innocent comedy and the upholding of marketable ‘British ideals’. Angela’s Ashes would demonstrate an international interest in the country’s historical past and join the British tradition of fictional period dramas.
Robert Carlyle would play a defining role in each of these films, and become a crucial cog for the progress of British cinema in his own right even after his wildly successful 1990s breakthrough. As independent cinema flourished at the turn of the century, Carlyle was often a credited name, highlighting the posters of The Beach and Once Upon a Time in the Midlands, whilst accelerating his profile across the pond with roles alongside Kiefer Sutherland and Samuel L. Jackson in To End All Wars and The 51st State, respectively.
In recent years he has scaled back from cinema and returned to his early days on the small screen, besides a reappearance as Begbie in T2 Trainspotting and a bizarre prosthetic cameo as John Lennon in Richard Curtis’ Yesterday. Mellowing out into softer, more composed cinematic roles, Robert Carlyle’s legacy on British cinema will always be dented into the 1990s, providing an early archetype of the gruff, unhinged British delinquent.