Although the Scottish actor Ewan McGregor got a taste of mainstream Hollywood stardom when he appeared in the last three “Star Wars” movies — from 1999 to 2005 — he seems to go out of his way to stay true to his indie roots in the 1990s.
In 2010, the actor gave a very daring and very funny performance as Jim Carrey’s jailhouse boyfriend in “I Love You, Philip Morris” and he was seen in art houses the following year in “Beginners” as a middle-aged man coping with his elderly father (Christopher Plummer) coming out of the closet. McGregor’s strong support of Plummer was a major factor in the latter actor earning a best supporting actor Oscar.
Clearly, the “Star Wars” pictures were an anomaly in a career that was launched with Danny Boyle’s gritty (and funny) tale of Edinburgh heroin addicts “Trainspotting” (1996) and continued with a series of offbeat pictures such as Todd Haynes’ “Velvet Goldmine” (1998) in which he played a thinly fictionalized version of Iggy Pop.
Perhaps the most eccentric of all McGregor vehicles, however, is the 1996 Peter Greenaway film, “The Pillow Book,” in which the actor plays a key role in a surreal tale of a young Chinese woman (Vivian Wu) who seeks revenge on those who destroyed her calligrapher father.
The calligrapher would often practice his art on the bodies of men and women; his daughter picks up where he left off, and in several scenes uses her boyfriend McGregor as one of her canvases.
Like all Greenaway films, “The Pillow Book” floats free of conventional movie notions of narrative but he creates such beautiful images that the result often feels like a two-hour wander in an art gallery.
Despite the dominance of the visual elements over storytelling and character development, Greenaway has nevertheless allowed several actors to register strongly in his films — that’s the case with McGregor in the Asian art film and Brian Dennehy in the little-seen 1987 Rome-set drama, “Belly of an Architect.”
The British filmmaker has always divided audiences — some think his movies are the heighht of pretentiousness, others believe he is a unique visual stylist — but “The Pillow Book” is a good place to start in his body of work.