THE 100 GREATEST FILMS OF ALL TIME – 41: TRAINSPOTTING

by Laurent Kelly


Trainspotting (1996) – Director: Danny Boyle   Adapted Screenplay: John Hodge Starring: Ewan McGregor, Robert Carlyle,  Ewan Bremner,  Johnny Lee Miller, Kelly Macdonald.  OSCAR COUNT (0) – Nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay

In Danny Boyle’s debut film Shallow Grave he showed great promise as a director who had the rare knack of combining a gritty, naturalistic tone with visually engaging cinematic techniques that stylistically add to the film’s substance. His next picture Trainspotting would show this effect in full flourish as the highs, lows and otherworldly impact of drugs was memorably brought to the big screen.

From a filmmaking perspective it is easy to see that Trainspotting is very similar to Goodfellas and I’m sure Danny Boyle must have had Marty’s film in mind as he was imagining the visual feel of his film. In both instances we are introduced to a fresh faced, energetic and very human protagonist who tries to win us over through the use of voiceover. Whereas Henry Hill advocates the mafia lifestyle however and says that that to “have lived any other way would have been nuts” Trainspotting’s lead character Renton is actually dead against the idea of living, implying instead that it is better to exist in a drug-induced stupor. Thus in the opening narration he sarcastically runs through life’s great offerings such as a ” fucking big television” before asking himself and the audience why he would bother to work towards something so mundane and trivial.

Instead the only thing Renton lives for is the “big hit” and Boyle does not shy away from showing us the great pleasure inherent in such a thrill and thus we become momentarily entranced by this lifestyle which does for a while seem far more satisfying than the mundane nature of normal day to day living.  This is not the film’s way of glorifying drugs however, it’s just having the guts to be honest and soon enough we witness the full force of the negative impact of drugs which have fatal consequences for some of the movie’s cast of characters. When the drug wears off and a huge sudden drop in energy emerges Renton comes to grips with his reality and is left feeling depressed, worthless and trapped. When all you live for is drugs, life without drugs hardly seems worth living and this is the vicious cycle that haunts the film’s protagonist through the opening hour of the film. In this time the harsh fate of reality begins to hit harder than the drug assisted flavour of fantasy as an innocent baby dies in a drug-clouded environment, one of Renton’s close friends dies and he himself suffers  a near overdose as he is driven off by a taxi and dropped near the pavement besides a hospital in what emerges as the final blow to his self-esteem.

They say that the textbook key to great characterisation is that events much elicit change and that passive must become active and thus after suffering through the downfall of his drug dominated lifestyle Renton decides to fight hard for reality as he takes a job in London and seems to have temporarily found his footing. The problem however is that his former life follows him down the road in the shape of his three mad as hatter friends (Begbie in particular) as Renton comes face to face with a battle of old versus new. In his new life he is holding down a job and an apartment but he becomes peer pressured into assisting with a risky drug deal. This potentially tragic plot point however actually proves a blessing in disguise as Renton decides to steal the money and leave behind for good both his friends and his former lifestyle.

In a life-affirming but non sentimental ending Renton now tells us that he is ready to choose life after all.

Trainspotting is a visually daring film but never feels gimmicky as a consequence. For example when Renton imagines the dead baby crawling on the wall, the clips of a mundane chat show playing on the television help to soak the surreal image in the stark nature of reality whilst also creating a nightmarish vision.

The direction is also tight and electrifying with Boyle brilliantly juxtaposing high octane scenes with slower, more natural pacing to show the key differences between being high on drugs and the after effects of coming off them even when the environment itself remains the same.

The performances are also astounding. McGregor is a likeable guy in a dark situation and we root for him to see some sense whilst Robert Caryle is to Begbie what Joe Pesci was to Tommy Devito, two slight but extremely intimidating and mad men who can terrify just through a simple glance.

In essence Trainspotting gave the British film industry a much needed kick up the backside, showing the world that British film could be imaginative, entertaining and artistic without having to follow the rigid status quo that people had come to associate their style of movies with.

I, for one don’t feel that the Boyle has been able to match the excellence he demonstrated here though he remains one of the industry’s most consistently good filmmakers.

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