Thursday 1 April 2010

Trainspotting (1996)

Director: Danny Boyle
Stars: Ewan McGregor, Ewen Bremner, Jonny Lee Miller, Kevin McKidd, Robert Carlyle and Kelly Macdonald

I'm climbing the stairway to Cinematic Heaven in 2010 to post five reviews a week of films from the IMDb Top 250 List, supposedly the greatest motion pictures of all time. Are they really? Find out here.

Discussion about Trainspotting shouldn't be just about whether or not it's a classic now, but about whether it'll survive as a timeless film or merely be relegated to the diminished stature of a historical document. I have a feeling it's going to be the latter. It is the most stunningly honest film I've ever seen, to the degree that many people would be horrified by it, but that honesty makes it a perfect capture of a moment in time. British cinema tends to do that very well, whether it be through Ealing comedies, the kitchen sink dramas of the sixties or the realistic social commentaries of Mike Leigh or Ken Loach. Trainspotting does no less and is a snapshot of the drug scene that thrived in England and particularly in Scotland through the 1990s. Everything in a similar vein, pun not intended, that follows in its wake will no doubt be compared to this and most are going to come off lacking.

Director Danny Boyle came along in the mid nineties, at a time when British independent film was thriving, mostly through the patronage of the film department of Channel Four television, known for Four Weddings and a Funeral, The Crying Game and The Madness of King George, or more recently Slumdog Millionaire, Borat and The Last King of Scotland. I saw much of his 1994 debut feature, Shallow Grave, but I don't remember anything at all about it except the stunning sound effect when a corpse's tooth is removed. In comparison, his follow up, Trainspotting, has more than a few moments that are completely unforgettable. I dare you to forget the baby hallucination or the worst toilet in Scotland. These don't make for a nice film in the slightest, but they make for one that sticks in the mind and turns it into a talking point.

Which, of course, is entirely the point. I haven't read Irvine Welsh's source novel but this is supposed to be a reasonably faithful adaptation, in spirit if not in word, as there were many chapters considered unfilmable and others were dropped because of length concerns. It opens with a defence of the drug culture in a monologue that lists seemingly everything that the modern world takes for granted in life and then rejects all of it in favour of a good drug habit. 'Choose life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family,' it runs, on and on as Renton and Spud run from the cops. 'Choose your future. Choose life... But why would I want to do a thing like that? I chose not to choose life. I chose something else. And the reasons? There are no reasons. Who needs reasons when you've got heroin?' This thinking doesn't make for pretty scenes, trust me.

Even when our hero, Mark Renton, played by the versatile Ewan McGregor, goes straight, he still doesn't get to see the sunny side of life. As he expounds so vehemently halfway through the film, Scots are the lowest of the low and life sucks. He tries to chat up a girl at the Volcano Club, based on the milk bar in A Clockwork Orange, only to be utterly outmanoeuvred but she takes him home anyway. In the morning he finds out she's underage and living with her parents. She's Diane, played by Kelly Macdonald, deliberately cast because she was an inexperienced nineteen year old actress who nobody would recognise and because she could pass for fourteen. She proceeds to blackmail Renton to stay with her because if he disappears, as he promptly plans to do, she'll report him to the police. Life without the escapist effect of drugs is still so depressing that Renton soon rejects it again in favour of a new habit.

There's much that is memorable here and there are scenes that resonate. The halfway point of the film comes with a truly stunning scene featuring a baby called Dawn, who dies of neglect while everyone including the baby's mother are out of their brains on heroin. They wake up to Allison's screams at her dead child. Anyone who views this film from the perspective that it glorifies the use of drugs can't have got this far into the story (like Bob Dole, who accused it of moral depravity but later admitted he hadn't actually watched the film) because this is one of those moments that could make people quit forever. The reaction of these characters though is to shoot up again immediately and find a world where such things can't happen. Of course, it doesn't matter how many hits they take and how much they steal to pay for it, because reality has to reassert itself sooner or later. Renton gets arrested, enrols in rehab to avoid prison but ends up overdosing anyway and being dumped at the Accident and Emergency.

Danny Boyle made this film for a tiny budget of £3.5m, which is pretty astounding given that it was based on a bestselling novel. While the cast includes a couple of major names, they weren't at the time. Ewan McGregor was three years away from unfortunate immortality as the young Obi-Wan Kenobi in The Phantom Menace, but he had already appeared in Boyle's previous film, Shallow Grave. Ewan Bremner was more experienced but his most prominent role thus far was probably as one of the Angel Gang in Judge Dredd. He'd really arrive as the title character in Harmony Korine's Julien Donkey-Boy in 1999 and he'd follow up with a string of big budget Hollywood blockbusters a far cry from this one. Robert Carlyle, who I've always felt was probably and thankfully doomed to play memorable roles in interesting movies without ever becoming a household name, is somehow now leading the cast in the latest Stargate series.

Even though Boyle benefitted from this impeccable cast early in their respective careers, £3.5m still seems amazingly low for what he managed to get onto film, especially as a million or so of that was used for promotion. This really is a textbook on how to make an effective movie without the usual expected budget. James Cameron should pay attention. There's a cold turkey scene here that is as effective as I've seen but the effects are kept to a minimum without ever decreasing the impact of the hallucinations. While the baby crawling across the ceiling is freaky, most of it is done through acting, a rather traditional approach for a film that fits well in the modern world of fast paced editing, profanity and hip soundtracks. Ewan McGregor was cast on the basis of what he'd done for Boyle before and because he fit the type of character the filmmakers were looking for, the sort of sympathetic bad guy feel that 'Michael Caine's got in Alfie and Malcolm McDowell's got in A Clockwork Orange'.

And however much the Oscar nominated script by John Hodge is sharp, catchy and insightful (before he was a screenwriter, he was a doctor who often dealt with heroin addicts), it's the acting that holds this film together. Most of the best writing is in the dialogue or narration and it's the actors who bring it to life, mostly McGregor, as he has by far the most screen time and he serves as the film's narrator too. He shaved his head for the part, lost 26 pounds and even met up with recovering heroin addicts in Glasgow as part of his research for the role. He apparently considered shooting up with heroin too but thankfully decided against it. I've long been impressed with Ewan McGregor, perhaps because he tends to follow in the footsteps of some of my favourite B-movie actors by appearing in some stunningly bad films but rarely failing to give excellent performances nonetheless. No, I'm not talking about The Phantom Menace, I'm remembering especially Eye of the Beholder which was awesomely bad but in which McGregor was no less than superb.

Bremner, who had played Renton on stage in a prior adaptation happily took the role of Spud here instead, even though it's far less of a part. Jonny Lee Miller and Kevin McKidd are excellent as Sick Boy and Tommy, two further friends, but it's Begbie who ends up most memorable. Carlyle knew the character type well, having met many of them as a native Glaswegian. 'Wander round Glasgow on Saturday night,' he explained, 'and you've a good chance of running into Begbie.' His take on this violent lunatic is memorable, not just for what he says and does, though he does plenty of both, but for what is simply ignored by those around him. Even the parents and relatives of his friends aren't offended by young Francis, because he's grown up around them, but they should be. Getting used to someone isn't an excuse.

Trainspotting was a huge success, especially in the UK. It was the highest grossing British film of 1996, at that point the fourth of all time. The British Film Institute rated it tenth on their list of the top hundred British films, The Observer the best British film of the last 25 years and readers of The List magazine voted it the best Scottish film ever. It was the biggest hit at the Cannes Film Festival that year and even translated well to the American screen, though the first twenty minutes were reedited with different dialogue so that the audience could understand what people were talking about. Scenes were also cut to obtain an R rating. £72m isn't a bad return on a £3.5m picture, but that's what you get with a sharp script, a top notch cast and a diverse and memorable soundtrack.

In fact the soundtrack took on something of life of its own, spawning not just a successful album of music used in the film but a second album too containing the remainder of the songs used, along with others that didn't make the cut or were merely inspirations to the filmmakers. Both sold in massive numbers and helped a number of artists to prominence or to return there. Most obviously Iggy Pop is a recurring theme throughout Trainspotting. He gets plenty of mention in dialogue, even leading to one key disagreement; the film's opening monologue takes place over a backing of his appropriate song, Lust for Life; and there's an Iggy and the Stooges poster on the wall of one key apartment that becomes more and more prominent as time goes by because it's the only thing that remains after every other bit of decoration disappears.

Iggy must surely head any list of pop culture icons who by all rights should have been dead years ago but have somehow survived. Even more than Keith Richards, Iggy lived the sex, drugs and rock'n'roll lifestyle to the extreme, thus making him the perfect candidate for use here. He got himself into all sorts of bizarre scrapes over the years, some of which wouldn't have been out of place in this film, even overdosing and mutilating himself on stage, yet somehow he's never seemed right when he's been clean. His best performances took place when he was out of his brain and I'm sure that's a lot of the reason that he was made so prominent here. The point seems to be that if the use of drugs can lead to the music of Iggy then they can't be all bad. Mark Renton avoids mediocrity in life by getting high just as Iggy avoided creative mediocrity the same way.

He isn't the only pop culture icon to be referenced. Elsewhere in the cast are Dale Winton, the camp game show host who is about the least likely person imaginable to appear in a film like this, and Keith Allen from the dance band The Prodigy, who is probably the most likely, all things considered. Irvine Welsh, who wrote the source novel, also appears in a small role, as does scriptwriter John Hodge. Pop culture is important here, because it's what affects the way we think, and that's where the film ended up. It was something of a phenomenon in the UK at the time it was released and it'll be interesting to see how much it remains as a reference point as the generations shift. As is pointed out here, fashions change, music changes and even drugs change but the reference points remain. Witness all the James Bond dialogue used here for a start. I have a feeling that Trainspotting will get used in dialogue quite a bit in British films of the future.

What surprised me most was how much of the film isn't about drugs. Everything I'd heard about it suggested that this was the drug culture film, but fully half of it is spent with our hero clean. What it does is to show how bad life is on drugs, and then how bad it is if you choose to get off them. That doesn't make it a drug culture film but a nihilist film, merely one set in the drug culture world. It simply tells us what life was like at the bottom end of the social scale in Scotland in the mid nineties, hardly a comfortable place, and it's probably going to be that reason that keeps the film alive longest. Maybe in a hundred years children will be writing essays on it in history class. I wouldn't be surprised.

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