Directed by Danny Boyle
Written by John Hodge
From the novel by Irvine Welsh
Seen on DVD
Occasionally a film becomes so part of popular consciousness it defines the decade for those of the relevant age. Trainspotting was that seminal film for those of us leaving high school in the late nineties. Although we were too young to catch it on first release, having seen it gave you instant street-cred, and the poster on your wall was a marker of edgy cool.
A grungy film about drug addicts, with a legendary gross-out toilet scene? I wasn’t really interested, except for the hype - if that many people were talking about it, it was a film that had to be seen sooner or later. Obviously, I chose later. Coming across it on the comedy shelf of the DVD store fourteen years after its release finally made me give it a go.
Mark Renton is a wiry, shaven-headed young heroin addict, with a disparate bunch of mates, most also hooked on various drugs. Following Renton through several attempts to get clean, it becomes apparent his slips are caused by the bizarre code of honour binding him to his so-called friends. Even when seeing them for what they really are, he’s drawn back in, unable to shake his obligations to them.
This sense of honour makes Renton’s journey interesting, but it also makes his eventual break from the group more shocking. Although cheering for him to “choose life,” as the film’s tagline goes, his traitorous turn leaves me questioning whether he has really triumphed. Having kicked the habit, and his friends, has Renton really become a better person? Was his characteristic loyalty the price he had to pay, and what sort of person is he going to make without it?
This central, intriguing point is in part supported by the realistically sad stories which affect Renton: the straight friend getting sucked in and consumed by drugs, the tragic baby, the squalor, and the measures everyone must take to ensure constant supply of their drug – but somehow the circus of activity, comic filthiness, and humorous tirades make the important points incidental nuance rather than the focus of the story. This is essential if trying to brand an urban horror tale a comedy, and Danny Boyle’s creative, fast-paced direction and fantastic soundtrack choice show his intention to entertain rather than reflect.
A spectacular performance as Renton catapulted Ewan McGregor into stardom. Robert Carlyle is often singled out from the rest of the group for his portrayal of the psychotic Begbie, and he certainly had fun with the rich stories his over-the-top character wielded. As an ensemble the gang have deservedly gone down in history, and the movie remains a defining moment in British film.
Trainspotting was not McGregor and Boyle’s first movie together, it was just the one that made them famous. Just starting out in their careers, two years earlier McGregor acted in Boyle’s Shallow Grave. A twisted little thriller, it managed to just miss the mark in some indefinable way, but it’s an excellent watch.