Director: Danny Boyle
Primary Cast: Ewan McGregor, Ewen Bremner, Jonny Lee Miller, Robert Carlyle, Kevin McKidd, Peter Mullan, Kelly Macdonald, Shirley Henderson, James Cosmo, Eileen Nicholas
US Release Date: 9 August 1996
Trainspotting, aka that film with lots of feces featuring three actors who would later play minor parts in the Harry Potter series.
Ok not really. But I still can’t help but think of it that way.
Anyway, after my recent encounter with The Shawshank Redemption, I decided to knock another 90s film out of my Netflix queue by watching Danny Boyle’s adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s novel. Before watching the film, all I knew was that Danny Boyle directed it, Ewan McGregor was in it, and that it depicted a group of heroin addicts. While watching it, I was continually surprised, disgusted, and entertained; what follows is simply a short post elaborating on that fact.
My experience with Boyle’s work has been relatively limited (so far). That said, one thing that his works seem to me to have in common is a great deal of energy. Those films of his that I have seen are kinetic, dynamic, and leap from the screen. Even when they are not all that I might want them to be, Boyle’s movies keep me invested with their combination of intensity and vigorous storytelling. All of this is true for Trainspotting, a film that managed to hold my attention tightly for its entire duration despite the fact that it will probably never join the ranks of my personal favorites.
By the very nature of its subject matter—namely, the lives and the relationships between a number of addicts—one would expect parts of Trainspotting to be unpleasant, but Boyle does not simply decorate his film with moments of grim reality. Instead, he allows grim reality to dominate every scene. While he does not wholly condemn his characters, Boyle doesn’t turn a blind eye to the consequences of their behavior either. Rather, he successfully manages to portray multiple horrors of crime and drug use without ever allowing his film to become melodramatic. Trainspotting may be frustrated and disillusioned, but it does not pair those feelings with moralization. For all their many faults, Trainspotting respects its characters enough not to sugarcoat their lives or to use them to make sweeping generalizations. The film does not judge them or those who live as they do either. As terrible as they might be, the film’s characters are not painted in clear black and white, and it’s certainly no accident that the figure in the film who doesn’t do drugs is the one who hurts the most people.
Trainspotting is many things, but dull is certainly not one of them. The film is fully itself and it has a great deal of style; whether viewers will find that style agreeable it a different issue entirely. That said, Trainspotting actually seems to understand its own potential for revulsion so well that it somehow becomes more likable, and it finds a way to keep audiences hooked—even despite the fact that none of its characters are particularly decent.
Even with its more surreal moments, there is also a fearless commitment to realism in Trainspotting that can make it hard to stomach. Certain scenes may make audiences feel queasy, but they do so so that they might know the film’s characters more intimately. More importantly, as gross and horrible as parts of it are, Trainspotting never rings false.
At the same time, the film is also characterized by a bleak sense of humor that keeps it watchable and—in its own way—quite fun for its entire running time. As awful as its story may be, there is an unmistakable sense of delight buried deep within Trainspotting, and it has far more sheer personality than most film’s I’ve seen.
Tonally and topically speaking, Boyle has a lot of balls in the air over the course of Trainspotting, and he does an impressive job of keeping most of them from crashing to the ground. In this effort, he is helped a great deal by the strength of his film’s characters. Boyle may not wholly defend the actions of Renton, Spud, Tommy, Begbie, and Sick Boy, but he doesn’t allow their shared tendency for bad behavior obscure their individuality either. Each of Trainspotting’s key players is drawn sharply and is distinct from the rest. They come to life vividly, and—for better or for worse—Boyle refuses to rob them of their humanity by turning them into symbols for anything greater than what they are.
As strong as the ensemble is, Ewan McGregor’s Renton is undoubtedly the star of the show. His narration invites viewers in, and his presence anchors the film perfectly. McGregor’s magnetic charm goes a long way in Trainspotting, and his performance may just be its most enjoyable feature.
Furthermore, while the dangers and the results of heroin use certainly play a role in the film, Boyle is even more interested in the connections between his characters. Addicts and criminals may not make the best of friends, but they do seem to understand each other in ways that others do not. As sad as it may be, there are bonds between the film’s protagonists—I use the term loosely—that cannot be explained without heroin. For while the drug makes it difficult for them to trust or to truly help one another, it also gives them the only people they can hope to have long-term and regular companionship with.
In addition to intelligent writing, strong directing, solid acting, and a good measure of (rather dark) verve, Trainspotting also benefits from a fantastic pop sound track. The songs in the film sharpen the scenes they are in, and they bring this energetic, personality-filled film to life with great intensity while firmly placing it in the late 1980s.
Trainspotting includes more shit, bad decisions, and statutory rape than I might prefer, but I’m still glad to have finally seen it. This bold, character-driven film presents a gritty and honest—but not entirely joyless—picture of addiction, and it explores some of the conditions darkest corners. At the same time, Boyle never forgets that he has an audience to entertain—even if that means turning their stomachs from time to time.
Until Next Time
As utterly ridiculous as such a comparison is to make, I felt stronger and more varied emotions watching Trainspotting than I did watching The Shawshank Redemption. Whether this is a reflection of me or of the films themselves remains to be determined.
As always, thanks so much for reading! If you love Trainspotting and would like to tell me why, just leave a comment below or connect with me on twitter. I’d also love to know which Danny Boyle film you think I should watch next, because at this point, I’ve only seen this one, Trance, and Steve Jobs.
My next post will be a full review of Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon. Get stoked!