Ewan McGregor in The Worst Toilet in Scotland

Trainspotting

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

27 September

 

 

Irvine Welsh born, 1958

On this day in 1958, in Leith, Edinburgh, Irvine Welsh was born. Or was he? After a police arrest in 1996, just after fame had hit him like a heroin rush, the police revealed that he was in fact seven years older, so born in 1951. Or 1961, if the BBC’s Writing Scotland website is to be believed. But 1958 is what the author maintains (I say “maintains” though his own website is silent on the subject), so let’s stick with that. After growing up in nearby Muirhouse, Welsh moved to London in the late 1970s at the time of punk, played as a guitarist in a string of gob-spangled bands including Pubic Lice and finally moved back to Edinburgh, where he worked in the council housing department. Remembered as a well dressed young man who never seemed the worse for drugs, he was apparently destined to “go far” in local administration. All the while Welsh was writing short stories, many of which featured in local literary magazines. Trainspotting was his first novel, a tale of drug excess, depravity and skanky humour among a small group of heroin users, delivered in phonetic street-talk. The lack of moral centre, the refusal to be PC and tone it down made it one of those books read by people who don’t read books. Welsh, in effect, became the heir to the New English Library output of Richard Allen whose books (Skinhead, Suedehead etc) had had a similar effect a generation before. Secker and Warburg, his original publishers, were convinced it would never sell – the original print run was 3,000. Well, they were wrong there.

 

 

Trainspotting (1996, dir: Danny Boyle)

“Choose life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a fucking big television.” The soliloquy from Trainspotting, as spoken by Renton (Ewan McGregor), our likeable, voluble, eloquent guide to the more depraved side of Edinburgh life in Danny Boyle’s adaptation of the book. Having popped his head over the critical parapet with Shallow Grave, Boyle was propelled to international renown with Trainspotting, thanks to his ability (and that of screenwriter John Hodge) to safely transfer Irvine Welsh’s high energy, loud humour and foul mouth to the screen intact. With a largely Britpop soundtrack that wasn’t just cool but also appropriate (Iggy Pop, Primal Scream, Underworld, Blur, Leftfield), restless camera and some bravura stunts (Renton diving into The Worst Toilet in Scotland to rescue the opium suppositories), the effect was of a particularly nasty music video, or of a night of druggy excess, now exhilarating, now terrifying. McGregor’s heroin-chic cheekbones sold the film on posters, but great though McGregor’s performance is, Robert Carlyle as the insane Begbie is even better, one of the few instances of menace actually transmitting off the screen and into the audience. People took Trainspotting the film to their hearts the way they had the book, because it dared to say something that goes unsaid – the reason why people take drugs is because they enjoy it, simple as. And let’s not forget how funny it is – as Renton says about the group’s dealer, “We called him Mother Superior on account of the length of his habit.”

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Welsh’s best book, Boyle’s best film
  • Party like it’s 1996
  • A cast largely of unknowns at the start of interesting careers
  • Buckle up for the “Worst Toilet in Scotland” scene

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

 

Trainspotting – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

4 thoughts on “Trainspotting”

  1. In the aftermath of _Pulp Fiction_, much of the filmmaking of the 1990s thrived upon attempts to appear "edgy" within the constructs of independent films, or merely to provide empty shock value cliches. And no film ever came close to the sheer cleverness of Tarantino’s masterpiece.

    _Trainspotting_, however, somehow manages to take the excesses of the mid-90s and rise far, far above the cinematic cliches that it easily could have become. A film that tackles any hot-button social issue can, and usually does, simply become a didactic propaganda piece. Thankfully, _Trainspotting_ is vastly more intelligent in its edginess and its shock.

    In order to appreciate _Trainspotting_ fully, the viewer must abandon any preconceptions about what defines truly great cinema, because this film defies convention at nearly every turn. And with the rapid pace of its plot, that’s quite a bit of ground to cover.

    Though a great deal of the picture’s brilliance is derived from director Danny Boyle’s consistent rejection of typical cinematic techniques, the most satisfying and _best_ aspect of _Trainspotting_ is that Boyle creates a film that is neither pro-drug or anti-drug. Instead, he maintains a rare objectivity throughout the film, depicting this fascinating array of complex, beautifully acted characters with an honesty that it seldom captured on film. And, given the life that each character lives, it’s nearly incomprehensible that a director would refrain from influencing the viewer’s impressions in any way, yet that’s exactly what Boyle does.

    The dialogue– or at least what portions of the brogue-drenched dialogue American viewers will be able to comprehend– is alternately hilarious, raw, and brutal. And Ewan McGregor, Jonny Lee Miller, and Robert Carlyle bring a remarkable compassion and depth to their portrayals of characters that could have easily lapsed into cliche.

    Despite its sheer brilliance, _Trainspotting_ is not a film that’s easy to watch. The viewer is bombarded with images that transcend visceral discomfort in their horror– this movie contains two of the most graphic, horrifying scenes I’ve ever encountered. But, amazingly, none of these elements is used merely for shock value. Though the viewer will be mortified by some of the things that happen onscreen– the well-documented dive into Scotland’s most vile public toilet, for example– these scenes all make _perfect sense_ within the context of a masterfully told story.

    In order to notice all of the subtlety that also exists in _Trainspotting_, repeat viewings are necessary, primarily to reduce some of the most powerful shocks ever-so-slightly, though their effects are never lost entirely. Some of the images will likely haunt even the most cynical, jaded viewer for weeks.

    RATING: 10 out of 10. Never patronizing and completely unpretentious, _Trainspotting_ is one of the most daring, unconventional films ever made. It inspires a level of discomfort rivaled by very few movies, because, even at its most graphic, Boyle never insults the viewer with mere shock tactics. Brilliantly acted, directed, and written, with a truly rare objectivity that allows each viewer to interpret its story on his/her own terms.

  2. After reading some of the reviews that trash this film I had to speak up.

    This film is gritty and dirty. There is content which is not pleasant, swearing and violence amounts other things. What else would you expect a film about drug addiction to be about? Well more than that actually, it about choices and what you Choose! Never at any point did this film make drugs look at all appealing to me in any way, I never did understand why so many people thought that it did. At no point did it ever say "Look at this, its cool." For those who think the level of swearing in this film is too much then they clearly haven’t spent any time with working class people in Britain, not just Scotland. I being one of them can say its fairly accurate in that account.

    That being said, those things do not take anything away from the film, the quality of plot and story, or the acting which is Stunning! Robert Carlise as Begbe was excellent, and Ewan MacGregor shined. Also the character Spud was worth a mention he really was quite good.

    This film is in my Opinion a work of Genius, that represents the book accurately.

  3. Renton is a heroin addict. He is one of a group of friends who live their lives day to day and hit to hit. When he tries to kick the habit he manages it for a while but eventually falls back into his old way. Meanwhile his friends are as messed up as he is, whether it be Spud’s pathetic addiction, Begbie’s violent rages or the fact that he is sleeping with a girl who still goes to school.

    When it came out this film was very hyped, the poster became a must-have on every student’s bedroom wall and the media went nuts over it’s supposed glamorisation of drug use. The plot is very difficult to summarise, as it doesn’t really have a narrative flow other than the very disjointed experience of Renton. However it manages to be very funny and imaginative all the way, using many different tricks and touches to be funny. The dialogue is very well written and I must admit I found it a lot funnier than the last few comedies I watched.

    The media may have condemned this film as promoting drug use, but I can only imagine that they watched a different film from me. Sure, the film shows drugs as being fun and enjoyable but, like Renton says, `why else would we do it?’ However the film clearly shows a massive downside where people’s lives are destroyed, people OD and lives go day to day just trying to get high. True, it does show this downside in a stylish and funny way but there is no question that the film is promoting drug use in any sense.

    Too often I see films that are style over substance; Trainspotting gets it just perfect, stylish but not at the expense of dialogue, character or film. It is helped by a great cast. McGregor jumped to stardom off the back of this role and he deserved it. He keeps his character both likeable but repulsive at the same time and carries the film with surprising ease. The support cast is excellent, even if they lack the same good character of Renton. Whether it is the comic Bremner, the violent Carlyle or the tragic McKidd. While not all their characters are well developed, they do all give good accounts of themselves, whether it is comic or showing the effects of heroin on their lives.

    Overall this is a great film that is refreshing to see now without all the `cult student cool’ hype or media feeding frenzy over it’s supposed pro-drug approach. It is stylish, funny, depressing and downright sobering.

  4. This film became almost a cultural phenomenon as soon as it was released in Britain in February 1996.

    Adapted from the first (and best) book by Irvine Welsh, the film shows the lives of a group of Edinburgh heroin addicts.

    The film is a black comedy, at times hilarious, tragic, surreal, brutal and uplifting. The film is full of memorable moments such as the chase down Edinburgh’s Princes Street which opens the film (I happened to be there when they were filming that scene) and Ewan McGregor diving down the "Worst Toilet in Scotland" headfirst.

    The film doesn’t condemn drug addicts, but it is probably more effective then any amount of preachy moralising as it depicts the devastating consequences that can happen to drug users.

    The film is well acted by a cast who have (mostly) become pretty famous since. Especially memorable is Robert Carlyle as the violent Begbie.

    I have seen this film many times. It is an instant classic. Go check it out.

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