Benjamin is a former volunteer DJ at his local hospital radio station. He has been reviewing films online since 2004.
What's the Big Deal?
Trainspotting is a darkly comic drama film released in 1996. It is based on the 1993 novel of the same name by Irvine Welsh, who also makes a brief cameo. The film follows a group of heroin addicts living in squalor in Edinburgh and the various misadventures of one of them, known as Rent Boy, as he attempts to quit his habit. The film stars Ewan McGregor, Ewen Bremner, Robert Carlyle, Jonny Lee Miller, Kevin McKidd and a debuting Kelly Macdonald and was directed by Danny Boyle. It was an instant success - the film garnered almost universal acclaim from critics when it was released, and it is still considered one of the best films ever made by the British film industry. Audiences also enjoyed the film, helping it to an estimated worldwide total of $72 million making it the most profitable film of the year. The film is also notable for its soundtrack, which was so well received that a second volume of songs was later released and often features on lists of the best film soundtracks of all time. The film was followed by a sequel - T2 Trainspotting - in 2017, reuniting most of the team with Boyle. At the time of writing, plans are in place for a spin-off based around the character of Begbie, played by Carlyle.
What's It About?
Mark "Rent Boy" Renton is a young heroin addict living in a suburb of Edinburgh, spending his days engaging in petty crime in order to fund his drug habit alongside his friends - James Bond super-fan and con man Simon "Sick Boy" Williamson, dim-witted Daniel "Spud" Murphy and Swanney, known as "Mother Superior" and their principal dealer. After ignoring the abstinence and warnings from his other friends Francis "Franco" Begbie and Tommy Mackenzie for years, Rent Boy decides to make a concerted effort to break free from his habit. But his efforts are in vain although he manages to hook up with the bewitching Diane on a night out and they soon start dating, despite Diane being an under-age schoolgirl - much to Rent Boy's horror.
Despite the grim reality of their surroundings, Rent Boy's failure to break free of his addiction starts to affect the lives of his friends and family around him. In a final attempt to break free, he quits cold turkey and leaves Edinburgh behind to start a new life in London, getting himself a job in the process. But Rent Boy's past is never that far behind him and in the wake of a tragedy, he finds himself drawn back into the shady world he thought he's left behind...
What's to Like?
Considerably easier to understand than Welsh's novel which is often written in Scottish English, Trainspotting is Boyle's best film to date by far. From the blistering energy of its iconic opening sequence of Rent Boy and Spud running away after an ill-advised theft, brilliantly scored to Iggy Pop's 'Lust For Life' and narrated by its famous 'Choose Life' monologue, the film grabs your attention and simply doesn't let go. Like it or not, you are on a journey with these low-lifes and scumbags and are about to witness their lives in all its rancid glory. Boyle's direction is energetic and relentless, only slowing to show us some of the more traumatic sights or engage in a surreal flight of fancy or nightmarish vision.
All of the cast deliver some truly excellent performances, making these characters memorable and even likeable at times. McGregor's tortured junkie is a haunting presence with pale skin and looking much thinner than we've become accustomed to these days. Bremner is superb and very welcome comic relief while few actors can do closeted rage as well as Carlyle can - his foul-mouthed psycho Begbie is a menacing and unpredictable character who feels as deadly as the heroin we see the cast indulge in. All of the cast speak in their usual Scottish accents (although Miller is English) and it makes the film feel even more authentic and unfiltered. And that's exactly how the film should be - anyone who thinks that this film glorifies drug use is either ill-informed or simply hasn't seen the film and it's the film's warts-and-all approach, together with its sheer energy and inventiveness, that makes this film a superb watch even after all this time. Trainspotting remains as prescient and unique as ever and while the soundtrack is wonderfully evocative of life in the Nineties, the film's class is permanent.
- Kelly Macdonald was just nineteen when she was spotted at an audition by Boyle who had issued flyers around the Glasgow area searching for an unknown actress to play the part of Diane. She still has the flyer at her home although she later admitted that she nearly blew the gig after getting drunk with the cast for her first day shooting.
- In 2009, Carlyle explained that he portrayed Begbie as a closeted gay man and his outbursts were due in part to his fear of being outed. Welsh then confirmed that this was exactly how he wrote the character of Begbie in the source novel and was delighted to see Carlyle pick up on this.
- The film's title is misleading as no such activity takes place in the film - indeed, Oasis declined to allow the film to use their music because they thought that was what the film was about. Welsh later explained the title, saying that it is a euphemism for drug taking as well as describing an obsession that only those involved would understand. To train spotters and heroin addicts, their 'hobby' makes perfect sense.
- The scene in the Volcano nightclub is reminiscent of the Moloko bar from A Clockwork Orange, even using the same font for the writing on the wall. The music heard in the scene is by Heaven 17 who took their name from the film (or novel) as well. There are also paintings of Robert De Niro and Jodie Foster as seen in the film Taxi Driver.
What's Not to Like?
Most of the time, we watch movies to escape into a lively, exciting or entertaining world of fiction. Whether this is a fantasy epic like The Lord of the Rings, a sci-fi blockbuster like Star Wars or something more grounded like The Shawshank Redemption, films are a way to alleviate stress and depression from our lives however briefly. Trainspotting is not one of those films - this is a truly difficult film to watch with disturbing subject matter, little evidence of optimism and some horrifying hallucinatory visons such as the tragic fate of baby Dawn. Even the ending could be open to interpretation with Renton's future far from certain and frankly, I had little faith that the character would be redeemed in any way. This is not a film to make you feel better, other than relief that your life hopefully isn't as bleak as it appears here.
I first saw this film more than twenty years ago and it had a profound effect on me, certainly rubber-stamping my intentions to never do drugs. If it wasn't for the excessive amounts of swearing and occasional scenes of sex and violence, I would argue that the film would be ideal for teenage audiences as it would surely dissuade many from following the mistakes made by the characters. But I also feel like the film doesn't toot its own horn enough. For many addicts of whatever vice we have, it is less about the vice itself and more about the company around you - how many alcoholics or smokers engage in their addictions because their friends or family do the same? Maybe the film could have made more of this point that it does but to be honest, Trainspotting gets its message across without being overly preachy and is to be commended for that. Other than that, the only other thing viewers might not like is the heavy Scottish accents used but thankfully, that is no such problem for myself.
Should I Watch It?
Riding the wave of success the British film industry was enjoying at the time, Danny Boyle's drama remains one of the best films this country has produced in my lifetime and will be for some time to come. Kinetic, dramatic, comic and tragic in equal measures, the film makes the most of its limited narrative to deliver a powerful and essential look at the lives of drug abusers and those around them - all of it alongside one of the all-time great soundtracks. It won't be to everyone's tastes and is tough going at times but Trainspotting is still an example of creative, low budget filmmaking at its very best.
Great For: shocking addicts into recovery, teaching about the dangers of drug misuse, the careers of everyone involved, the UK film industry, fans of 90s music
Not So Great For: the easily offended, the squeamish, your grandparents, anyone under the age of 15
What Else Should I Watch?
I can think of few films that detail the harrowing experience of heroin addicts quite as well as this but there are some notable exceptions. The first which sprang to my mind was Requiem For A Dream, an equally unbearable film at times following the lives of four addicts in New York as their lives are overtaken by their addiction. Like Trainspotting, the film garnered positive reactions from critics who praised the film's direction by Darren Aronofsky (who would later direct The Wrestler and Black Swan) and the cast, led by Ellen Burstyn and Jared Leto. Made along similar lines, Spun is less impressive as a film but has an enviable cast and is based around a few days in the company of addicts which, frankly, is enough.
A more light-hearted look at the lives and misadventures of addicts can be found in the trippy Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas, an adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson's own novel directed by former Monty Python star Terry Gilliam. The film polarized critics and audiences when it was first released but has since become a cult favourite. Speaking of cult classics, Dennis Hopper's Easy Rider is a groovy look at two stoners attempting to smuggle drugs via the gas tank of a funky-looking chopper in the dying days of the 1960's while equally trippy Seventies thriller Vanishing Point felt the closest I've come to having an actual trip - and not one of the vehicular kind.
Mark "Rent Boy" Renton
Daniel "Spud" Murphy
Jonny Lee Miller
Simon "Sick Boy" Williamson
Francis "Franco" Begbie
Thomas "Tommy" Mackenzie
Swanney / "Mother Superior"
Release Date (UK)
23rd February, 1996
Academy Award Nominations
Best Adapted Screenplay
© 2021 Benjamin Cox