CINEMA CLASSICS: Trainspotting (1996)

Dylan Spicer revisits Danny Boyle’s modern milestone in honour of the upcoming sequel. 

Who made it?: Danny Boyle (Director), John Hodge (Writer), Andrew Macdonald (Producer), Channel Four Films.

Who’s in it?: Ewan McGregor, Ewen Bremner, Jonny Lee Miller, Kevin McKidd, Robert Carlyle, Kelly Macdonald, Peter Mullan.

Tagline: “Choose life. Choose a job. Choose a starter home. Choose dental insurance, leisure wear and matching luggage. Choose your future. But why would anyone want to do a thing like that?”

IMDb rating: 8.2/10 (Top 250 #153).

It is now far enough from the 90s to examine the decade’s cultural flavour. What seemed hard to define at the time really does seem to have its own distinct pattern and trends. Just five minutes of hit television series Men Behaving Badly shows that some things have changed a great deal, even if it’s just that everyone wears clothes that are far too big for them.

At the same time, there was the concept of “Lad culture.” Lager, football and ogling girls were all seen as very positive things, but crucially, it was something that spanned class boundaries, and whilst it may have seemed misogynistic in places, it was done with an ironic, self-deprecating tone. In many ways, it was an attempt to redefine the modern man at the turn of the century.

One film that embraced a huge chunk of this 90s culture was Trainspotting, Danny Boyle’s second film after a fascinating and assured debut with Shallow Grave (1994). It became one of the biggest British films of the era, and was one that held a mirror up to the culture whilst becoming part of it. But with its long-touted sequel coming up, has it faded with age, or is still relevant, exciting cinema?

The plot follows Renton (Ewan McGregor), an apathetic smackhead living in Edinburgh. Despite trying to sort out his existence, his group of friends constantly bring him back down, and he see-saws between trying to “choose life,” petty theft, drug-taking, and apathy. Throw in a sports bag full of money, a Lolita-esque relationship, and a dead baby, and you have a piece of British drama that is both hilarious and hideous in the same breath.

I don’t think we can truly describe Trainspotting as a piece of social realism. While it deals with a lot of the banalities of British (or Scottish) life, it’s incredibly surreal, and the direction is very energetic. Virtually everything is represented by the absurd, and be it hopping from a hospital wall or crawling into a toilet, no-one can guess what will come next.

The tone changes wildly. It’s a very funny film in places, if in a rather morally-detached and often disgusting way. Again, it’s a movie where you need only reference the scene to get fans in the know – Spud and the sheets, “the kitten was fine,” Sean Connery’s career – all bring up memorably quotable moments, but all are bleak and darkly comic. Comedy in a film that is incredibly horrible. The dreamlike nature never takes away from some shocking scenes of violence. It’s a film that makes you wince, involving broken glass and sharp knives. Anyone with a fear of needles is going to find the injection scenes incredibly hard viewing.

While I don’t believe that this film made a huge chunk of its audience heroin addicts, it doesn’t always get down to the rock-bottom seriousness that drug addiction can bring. It could suggest that all you need to do to make a great British movie is to combine social realism with quirky camera shots, as so painfully lampooned by Adam Buxton’s character Ken Korda. Can something so stylised ever hope to critique and reveal a part of society? In the hands of Boyle, it can. There’s no doubt that he uses a lot of stylised camerawork, but it works because, when he uses a dynamic shot, it actually has a heart behind it. He manages to create iconic set-pieces, but there is always something else going on – it’s not just to make a conversation more interesting, but to enhance it as art. Sinking into a carpet might not happen in real-life when you overdose, but it perfectly represents being close to death, as well as being beautiful in itself.

This is alongside wonderful cinematography and production value. So much of British cinema can look cheap, especially when it tries to pull off something more dynamic. Don’t get me wrong, a £3.5 million budget is big in mid-90s UK terms, but here every penny is on-screen, and it matches gritty realism with Hollywood films.

This is all boosted by a cast that pull in some of their best performances. The discovery of McGregor was a huge boost to the film. At age 21, he provides what might still be his greatest part. Like Ray Liotta in Goodfellas (1990), it is an Alex in A Clockwork Orange performance – he manages to be both morally repugnant and wide-eyed innocent. Robert Carlyle’s performance could be the most terrifying in film history. He is the ultimate pub bogeyman, a bloke who will think nothing of beating you up for disturbing his pool shot. Each time he is on-screen, the tension ratchets up and the resulting violence is always brutal and realistic. Those who have ever found Jason Vorhees and Freddy Kruger to be the height of horror, check out Begby. Long before her Boardwalk Empire days, Kelly McDonald plays Renton’s illegal lover as the ultimate confident temptress.

But all this would mean nothing if the film rang false, and it’s here that we see why Trainspotting is such a success. Boyle understands what he is talking about. He genuinely manages to tap into the cultural zeitgeist of the time. Like Scorsese, he uses popular music till it squeaks. Never forget that this is based on Irvine Welsh’s novel, which is famously written in a Scottish patois that many readers will struggle with. It’s a difficult read but one with a lot to say, and to bring it onto the screen in an accessible and entertaining way is really something. It’s a crucial lesson in making a cultural movie – just because you are a good filmmaker doesn’t mean you necessarily understand the culture you are in. This is the problem with so many interpretations of culture in art – it feels like life through a lens, rather than an immersion.

Despite containing a moral apathy that can sometimes be hard to swallow, Trainspotting is a film so accomplished visually that each scene could be parodied or displayed. Considering this is about a bunch of heroin addicts, psychopaths and drunks, we can relate to them, which is a remarkable achievement. Whether you like it or not, Trainspotting is a very important film in British cinema history.

Best Scene

Here we see Renton deep in withdrawal. It’s a classic example of Boyle using interesting camerawork, visual trickery, horror, social comforts and dynamic music, and mixes them together into a perfect cocktail. Also, and I’m not being flippant, it’s worth seeing for a truly terrifying performance by Dale Winton.

On a totally separate note, check-out Boyle’s first London montage, where it appears hilariously idyllic and touristy – was this what got him the Olympics?

Useless Trivia

(Via IMDb)
  • Ewen Bremner (Spud) had previously played Renton in a stage adaptation of the novel.
  • Jonny Lee Miller’s character, Sick Boy, is obsessed with James Bond trivia. Miller is the grandson of Bernard Lee, who played “M” in the Bond series until 1979.
  • For its American release, the first 20 minutes had to be re-dubbed to make the Scottish accents more intelligible.
  • Although set in Edinburgh, most interiors, and some of the exteriors, were shot in Glasgow. A notable exception is the chase down Princes Street.
  • The writing on the wall of the Volcano Nightclub is the same as that in the Moloko bar in A Clockwork Orange (1971). There are also paintings of Robert De Niro and Jodie Foster from Taxi Driver (1976).
  • The football team pictured in the opening credits is the Calton Athletic Club, who are actually drug addiction counselors and were the primary consultants for the film.

Dylan Spicer

Dylan graduated from Brighton Film School and and went on to complete an MA in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University. He has worked on award-winning short and feature films. He is currently experimenting with Narradu Memories, and his online audio drama

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