Trainspotting (1996)    3 Stars

“Never let your friends tie you to the tracks.”


Trainspotting (1996)

Director: Danny Boyle

Cast: Ewan McGregor, Ewen Bremner, Jonny Lee Miller

Synopsis: Renton, deeply immersed in the Edinburgh drug scene, tries to clean up and get out, despite the allure of the drugs and influence of friends.




Perhaps the most refreshing aspect of Trainspotting is the way that it refuses to judge the characters that make up its story, all of whom are the kind with which no rational person would want to come into contact. These people are the lowest of the low, the dregs of society enslaved to a drug that provides small doses of rapture in return for a slow but systematic destruction of its victims’ identity and self-worth. But in Trainspotting, John Hodge’s screenplay ensures that they’re also ordinary people under that drug-fuelled, self-destructive nihilism, recognisable approximations of individuals we ‘normal’ people might know and even like. Apart from Begbie (Robert Carlyle — The 51st State, 28 Weeks Later), of course. Begbie’s simply a violent sociopath, whose savage acts of violence, despite staying away from hard drugs, serve to illustrate that drug addiction isn’t necessarily the only — or even the worst — deficiency from which a person can suffer.

The film loosely revolves around the attempts of Scottish youngster Renton (Ewan McGregor) to overcome his heroin addiction. He lives in Glasgow with his long-suffering parents, but his true family are the fellow addicts that make up his social circle. Sick Note (Jonny Lee Miller — Complicity, Aeon Flux), is a Sean Connery aficionado who, to Renton’s disgust, has no problem coming off heroin whenever he feels like it, Spud (Ewen Bremner — 16 Years of Alcohol) is a quiet, sweet-natured lad whom you suspect drifted into hard drugs because he had the bad luck to have mates who led him astray, and Begbie is the friend from Hell. There’s also Tommy (Kevin McKidd — 16 Years of Alcohol, The Last Legion), initially clean, but who becomes hooked after his girlfriend leaves him. These and other assorted addicts haunt the squalid flat of Mother Superior (Peter Mullan — The Last Legion, Welcome to the Punch), the local dealer who is himself a long-term addict, and fund their habit by committing petty crimes. But although Renton describes a heroin hit as ‘1000 times better than your best orgasm’ a part of him genuinely wants to come off the drug and follow the kind of straight life that he denounces in Trainspotting’s famously kinetic opening scenes.

It’s a fact that someone with an addiction finds some kind of solace in the camaraderie they enjoy with fellow addicts. An ‘us against them’ attitude endures, even though, as Trainspotting repeatedly asserts, that sense of brotherhood is something of a sham. The fatal downfall of Tommy is set in motion when Renton steals a video Tommy has made with his girlfriend. The discovery of its theft results in Tommy’s humiliated girlfriend leaving him, which in turn sees him begin experimenting with heroin. His subsequent fate can be directly linked to Renton’s act, but it’s just something that happens. There was no malice intended on Renton’s part, but the episode highlights the spurious nature of that camaraderie, and the massive implications of apparently insignificant decisions. It’s interesting that Renton’s deliberate act of treachery with which the movie closes is the one that finally enables him to choose that life of ‘good health, low cholesterol and dental insurance.’ What kind of message this might deliver — or intend to deliver — is questionable, but then Trainspotting is more of a slice of life movie, laced with dark, sometimes repulsive, humour, than one with a message.

Danny Boyle’s direction is vivid, sharp and brimming with vitality. It never seeks to glamorise either drug taking or a life lived mostly beyond the confines of society, and neither does it shy away from the horrors of such a life. We see the sweat-drenched pain that an addict attempting to go cold turkey must endure, and we see the tragic consequences of addiction not only in the fate of Tommy but of the baby of a female addict friend of Renton’s. It’s the kind of movie we might watch with a grimace (if we watch it at all) and a dim sense of wonder that people might actually live this way, and although most people would agree that it is a very good — perhaps great — movie, its’ unflinching treatment of its subject matter suggests it’s not the type that will find its way onto many people’s favourites list.

(Reviewed 8th August 2014)