(1996, Danny Boyle)
“It’s shite being Scottish!”
When Trainspotting came out in the mid-90s, it generated controversy from the moral guardians of the UK. Apparently, it was not explicit enough in its anti-drug message, that it somehow glamorised the drug scene, telling people to start taking heroin and mess up their lives.
Of course, this is all complete nonsense, as any cursory glance at the movie could tell you. It tells the tale of Marc Renton (aka Rent Boy, played by Ewan McGregor), a heroin addict, and his misfit group of friends – small-time pusher Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller), the ultimate loser Spud (Ewen Bremner), and the violent, psychotic Begbie (Robert Carlyle). It’s a slice of life piece, showing a period of time in late-90s Edinburgh as the effects of the drug lifestyle begin to take hold.
It is true that Trainspotting doesn’t constantly hit the viewer with a “drugs are bad” message, and even at times Renton’s narration informs us that heroin is the best feeling in the world, but the point is, the message is there, it’s just not pushed into our faces. Why does the film need to tell us drugs are bad when the characters are living in squalor and filth? Why does it need to explicitly say drugs will ruin your life when a baby dies from neglect and the spread of HIV through unwashed needles is a plot point? And what is more effective at demonstrating the futile nature of the drug lifestyle than Renton reaching into The Worst Toilet In Scotland to retrieve heroin suppositories? The film doesn’t need to tell us anything, it shows us more than enough, and in cinema, showing not telling is the way to go to make a great movie.
In fact, this is what Danny Boyle does brilliantly here. He chooses not to directly judge the characters, and instead offers up an almost perverse look into the lives of these people and lets the viewer make up his or her own mind regarding their moral stance on the issue. And with scenes like the aforementioned toilet scene and Renton’s horrific hallucinations while he’s under a detox from the drug, it’s hard for anyone to argue that drugs are a good thing.
But, much like Aronofsky did with Requiem For A Dream, Boyle has slipped in parallels with more “socially acceptable” forms of addiction. We frequently see characters smoking, Renton mentions his mother is prescribed Valium (even referring to her as a socially acceptable drug addict in the process), and Begbie is a violent thug who never takes drugs, but is a habitual alcohol drinker. This parallel is more a subtle addition than Requiem’s direct subplot approach, but it’s there, creeping in the background.
Trainspotting isn’t as harrowing as Requiem, but by his own admission Renton is a very lucky man to not suffer the worst of the drug scene, although it is happening around him. But this is partially due to his desire to reform himself. It’s not clear if he has or ever will, however; the ending is ambiguous. Again, this is left to the audience to decide, and is all the more effective.
Trainspotting is generally considered one of the greatest British movies of the 1990s, and it’s easy to see why. It’s well scripted, well-directed, brilliantly acted and has one of the best soundtracks ever, taking some of the best of the Britpop and 90s UK rave scene, with some Iggy Pop and Lou Reed thrown in for good measure. Definitely worth watching, if you can get past some of the thick Scottish accents.
Starring Ewan McGregor, Ewen Bremner, Jonny Lee Miller, Kevin McKidd, Robert Carlyle & Kelly MacDonald
Written by Irvine Welsh (novel) and John Hodge
Produced by Andrew MacDonald
Soundtrack includes Blur, Brian Eno, Leftfield, New Order, Iggy Pop, Lou Reed and Underworld
Cinematography by Brian Tufano
Edited by Masahiro Hirakubo
Favourite Scene: An early scene showing Renton’s non drug taking friends and family chastising him for taking heroin, while simultaneously drinking shots, smoking and eating junk food. It’s the key indicator of the subtle parallels with socially acceptable addiction.
Scene That Bugged Me: The toilet scene gets a bit too weird with the deep sea diving hallucination. Still not sure of its effectiveness.
Watch it if: You don’t need subtitles to understand the Scottish
Avoid it if: You’re a member of the Conservative Party.
Originally posted on Blogspot Wednesday 30 November 2011