The Full Carlyle
As his 2015 feature-film directorial debut black comedy The Legend of Barney Thomson now makes its way across the country in limited release and his role as Mr. Gold in the TV hit Once upon a Time continues to glimmer in the series’ fifth season, Glasgow native Robert Carlyle reaches another milestone today: turning 55. As the wickedly charming Scot prepares to reprise his starmaking role as the psychotic Begbie in the sequel Trainspotting 2, with filming to start next month under the wing of original director Danny Boyle, we salute his two richly lived-in average-bloke performances in two socio-politically topical films directed by Ken Loach in his particular terrain of working-class cinema. Carlyle’s first feature-film lead came in Loach’s scabrous comedy Riff-Raff (1991), playing homeless ex-con Stevie, hired for construction work at a London building site converting a former hospital into a luxury home complex. Bitter at their hardscrabble lot in the economic devastation prevalent in the Britain of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Party and resentful of the lax safety conditions on the site, Stevie and his mates try to get the job done even as they see corners cut everywhere they look. Stevie also embarks on a relationship with a talent-challenged “actress singer” that starts out optimistically but winds down when her career aspirations go nowhere. The film’s change of tone toward sadness and resignation mirrors Stevie’s plight when he faces death first at a distance within his family and then close-up and personal with a co-worker’s tragic fall on site – and the weight of a broken system oblivious to the welfare of its stakeholders drives Stevie and a another laborer to a final act of defiance. A succession of other roles for directors Antonia Bird (Priest), Bill Forsyth (Being Human) and Michael Winterbottom (Go Now) followed, and then came the gonzo, off-the-charts breakthrough of Trainspotting (1996), the visually inventive study of heroin addicts in poverty-blighted Edinburgh that jump-started the careers of Carlyle, Ewan McGregor, Jonny Lee Miller and director Boyle. That same year, Loach put Carlyle back in the driver’s seat for an unexpectedly tender and broodingly empathetic performance in Carla’s Song (1996). Carlyle’s everyman qualities are in soulful bloom as his busman is drawn to a beleaguered Nicaraguan woman (Oyanka Cabezas) living in exile in Glasgow. So moved is he by her preoccupation with her missing family and boyfriend in her native land that he leaves his routine life behind to join her on a trip to war-torn Nicaragua, where the American-backed Contra insurgency against the Sandinistas is tearing the country apart. Carlyle’s beautifully calibrated work in Carla’s Song and the following year’s rambunctious and ribald The Full Monty (1997) earned him Best Actor honors from BAFTA (for the latter), the Evening Standard and London Film Critics Circle (for both). The Carlyle smile – and blazing talent – will no doubt mark many film and TV projects ahead, but the Loach/Carlyle combinations on Riff-Raff (double-billed with Loach’s 1993 Raining Stones on the double-feature 2 by Loach) and Carla’s Song are solid evidence now on Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray.