Dir: Danny Boyle, 1996



With the hotly awaited release of the trailer for its sequel, finally occurring, I thought the timing was right to look at the much lauded integral part of nineties Britain.

Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor) is a drug addict, heavily into heroin.

His friends Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller) and Spud (Ewen Bremner) are also addicts.

A fourth friend, Begbie (Robert Carlyle), isn’t an addict but is psychotic and gets his fix from nutting and slashing anyone that gets in his way.

The trio are terrified of Begbie and remain friends with him, purely, out of fear.

Living in Scotland, Renton, Spud and Sick Boy spend there days drinking, stealing, scoring smack, injecting and talking about football and Sean Connery.

Where the others are content with the life they lead, Renton can see how wasteful being an addict is and strives to change his life around, get away from his friends and, ultimately, “choose life”.

Adapted by John Hodge from Irvine Welsh’s novel, Trainspotting arrived right in the middle of the Britpop  scene and successfully tapped into the culture enveloping Britain at the time.

Anybody of a certain age, will, undoubtedly, remember the Oasis vs Blur debate, rave/dance music, palettes and girl power.

Hodge and Boyle were able to incorporate all of that into this and strike a chord with the public.

The soundtrack is an eclectic mix of music, featuring the dour hit Born Slippy by Underworld.

Iggy Pop’s Lust For Life sets the backdrop to Renton’s desire to be free of his addictions.

To be fair, the moral of the story is good. Drugs are such a destruction of life and family. Renton knows this and wants to be free.

But, the film comes very close (sometimes touching) to glorifying addiction.

There are moments of drug taking that is twinned with comedy.

An example would be near the beginning of the film where Sick Boy is injecting a girl with heroin and she, almost orgasmically, proclaims that it’s “better than any cock!”. A stunned Sick Boy, stares at her with his mouth agape.

A comedic scene that doesn’t offer any balance with the negative connotations of being an addict.

Trainspotting, often, shows being a junkie with fun and having a good time.

Boyle wants us to cheer on the antiheroes even when they’re doing something bad.

A famous scene shows Renton running through the streets of Edinburgh, being chased by the police and security guards after shoplifting. Set to a thumping rock song, the whole bit is filmed as cool and in an amusing way.
However, the director knows that he can’t get away with showing just the fun and attempts to highlight the negative but even that is, more often than not, layered with an unreal quality that dilutes the seriousness of what is trying to be conveyed.

A side effect of taking heroin is constipation. After Renton takes something to counteract his affliction, a sudden urge to evacuate his bowels comes into force.

Left with very little choice, the now diarrhoea stricken addict has no option but to use a toilet that is routinely dubbed “the worst toilet in Scotland”.

Dank and putrid, Renton, reluctantly, drops his trousers and sits on the shit filled and shit covered throne.

However, the drugs he’d scored earlier end up in the toilet and he has to retrieve them.

But Boyle shoots the, potentially, stomach churning scene with humour and rids it of realism.

Renton immerses his whole body into the bowl and is shown swimming in a clear blue ocean to get them before climbing back out.

The stark contrast of the addict being so desperate that he will wade through a pool of excrement and then the dreamlike nature of the scene and its intention to make you laugh, does the reality of drug addiction a great disservice.

All the actors do brilliantly in their roles, with standout performances by Carlyle and McGregor.

But it’s the lightheartedness that raises cause for concern. Even Renton’s cold turkey has tinged with humour and surrealism.

Boyle, occasionally, let’s off flashes of brilliance and shows us what could have been a superb film with a very real anti-drug message.

He uses music to juxtapose the action taking place. Renton’s overdose and near death experience is punctuated by Lou Reed’s Perfect Day, ironically capturing what clearly isn’t his perfect day.

Not surprisingly, the film was treated with caution by British and American censors.

Passed uncut for cinema release, the video was scrutinised more closely as scenes on a video tape could infinitely be rewound and viewed out of context, slowed down etc.

Weary of allowing material that could be instructional, the BBFC sought advice from drug therapists about its possible use as an instruction manual and whether it could have the ability to make people experiment and pick up the habit.

The consensus was that it doesn’t encourage drug use or invite viewers to experiment but it, maybe, could be instructional.

With this in mind, the BBFC passed Trainspotting with an ’18’ certificate after 14 seconds of cuts were made to the sight of a syringe puncturing Renton’s arm and the cylinder filling with blood.

In America, the film fared even worse. As well as the sight of injections, the MPAA also insisted on cuts to the nudity in the sex scene between Renton and Diane (Kelly McDonald).

As is often the case with America, the first twenty minutes of the film had to be redubbed, toning down the strength of the Scotch accent.

Eventually, in 2002, the board was asked again to look at the film with the hope that it could now be passed uncut.

Seeking advice, the board was happy to waive the 14 seconds of cuts and grant another ’18’ certificate safe in the knowledge that the technique for taking drugs was already widely known.

One of the film’s biggest flaws is that it just isn’t funny.

The humour falls flat and is too often concerned with the consumption of illicit substances.

Despite my criticism, Trainspotting does have its moments of excellence and still worth a watch.

It’s just a shame that they are few and far between.


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