Trainspotting: Flirting with Death

CHOOSE LIFE. CHOOSE A JOB. CHOOSE A DENTAL INSURANCE, LEISURE WEAR AND MATCHING LUGGAGE. CHOOSE YOUR FUTURE. BUT WHY WOULD ANYONE WANT TO DO A THING LIKE THAT?

In 1996, Republican Senator Bob Dole was fighting an uphill battle as his party’s presidential nominee  to defeat Bill Clinton. As he was attacking the President and the entertainment industry as being responsible for the increased drug use among teenagers, he singled out two films as examples of ”romanticizing heroin” – Pulp Fiction (1994) and the British drama Trainspotting, which was released that year. Dole later admitted having never actually seen the latter film. Anyone who had knew that the GOP politician was full of shit. If you want to do heroin after watching Trainspotting, you must have been asleep.

We are introduced to Mark ”Rent Boy” Renton (Ewan McGregor) and his circle of friends in Edinburgh. Most of them are heroin addicts like Mark, including ”Spud” and ”Sick Boy” (Ewen Bremner, Jonny Lee Miller); Francis ”Franco” Begbie (Robert Carlyle) is part of the gang, but a complete psychopath who’s always looking to pick fights. When we first meet them, Mark has decided to quit heroin and is successful after a painful period of withdrawal.

Then he meets a sweet girl (Kelly Macdonald) whom he sleeps with; after learning that the people she’s living with are actually her mom and dad and not flatmates, he’s blackmailed by this 15-year-old to continue the romance. Some time later however, Mark is using again along with his addict buddies. It gets really bad, and tragedy strikes…

Grounded in personal experiences
After making the terrific thriller Shallow Grave (1994), Danny Boyle reunited with McGregor and this one became an even bigger hit, launching both men’s international careers. McGregor’s Mark is hardly a hero, as his life is shit from the start and the people he’s surrounding himself with only reinforce his worst instincts. But he’s still the person we identify the most with, and the one we’re hoping will be able to find a way out of the misery in Edinburgh. Author Irvine Welsh grounded his novel in personal experiences, and Boyle also saw the story as a gripping portrait of what’s positive and negative about male friendship.

Episodic in tone, the film’s narrative is uneven but compelling most of the time, moving swiftly between different phases of Mark’s drug-fueled journey. There is an incredible energy here, aided by Masahiro Nishikubo’s fast-paced editing, outrageous visual sequences (usually sprung out of Mark’s withdrawal nightmares, such as the disgustingly memorable scene where he dives into Scotland’s dirtiest toilet) and a soundtrack of songs that capture this life and era perfectly, ranging most vividly from Iggy Pop’s ”Lust for Life” to Underworld’s ”Born Slippy”. It’s funny, horrifying and desperately dark, such as the tragedy that strikes the group after days of heroin abuse, an experience that comes back to haunt Mark as he’s once again trying to kick the habit at his parents’ place. The cast became more or less iconic, including Carlyle who played the violent Begbie as a closeted man who’s always terrified of being exposed.

The film also has a youthful vitality in spite of its constant flirting with death. Combined with Boyle’s slick filmmaking and the soundtrack, it’s a clue to why some people thought the film was promoting drug use. But here’s a piece of advice: Look beneath the surface.

Trainspotting 1996-Britain. 94 min. Color. Produced by Andrew Macdonald. Directed by Danny Boyle. Screenplay: John Hodge. Novel: Irvine Welsh. Cinematography: Brian Tufano. Editing: Masahiro Nishikubo. Cast: Ewan McGregor (Mark ”Rent Boy” Renton), Ewen Bremner (Daniel ”Spud” Murphy), Jonny Lee Miller (Simon ”Sick Boy” Williamson), Kevin McKidd, Robert Carlyle, Kelly Macdonald.

Trivia: Followed by T2 Trainspotting (2017).

BAFTA: Best Adapted Screenplay.

Last word: “That was a big thing which we decided early on, that the camera was going to be on the deck a lot. No matter where these characters were that’s essentially where they were going to end up – on the floor – so we should just be there and wait for them. That was the basic aesthetic and we just followed it through. You have to plan this in advance and announce it clearly, so that the cameraman has to figure out how to get the camera mobile down there. It was very difficult to do but it was worth it.” (Boyle, interview by Keith Hopper)

 

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