March Blindspot: Trainspotting (1996)

Release: Friday, August 9, 1996

[YouTube]

Written by: John Hodge

Directed by: Danny Boyle

One of the things I had presumed about Danny Boyle’s iconic drug drama Trainspotting was that it was really bleak, and it was that way from start to finish. Don’t get me wrong — this film is not happy, but I wasn’t expecting so much compassion. I wasn’t anticipating something that has such a reputation for being repulsive and controversial to actually be both those things while proving to be something far more substantial.

Of course Trainspotting has been embraced more by some cultures than it has by others. The film, released three years after Scottish novelist Irvine Welsh’s book was published, has become a cultural touchstone in the UK, which makes sense given its unapologetically brash attitude and self-deprecatory humor, dialogue that pierces through to the soul and yet still somehow comes across charming, even poetic. Really really darkly poetic. And utterly unpretentious at that. Despite the film mostly being shot in Glasgow, Welsh set the story in his native Edinburgh, circa the 1980s.

A densely compacted crop of historic and gorgeous stone edifice gouged into rugged green hillsides that contrast dramatically against the cerulean flats of the Water of Leith to the north, the Scottish capital is actually second only to London in terms of attracting European travelers. Yet underneath this façade of wealth and diversity and leisure lie both literal and metaphorically crumbling infrastructures, themes that take root in both Welsh’s novel and Boyle’s adaptation.

Trainspotting tells the story of a group of youths who struggle to overcome terrible drug addictions and who struggle even more with the stagnation that has creeped into their lives. The characters have become British icons: Mark “Rent-Boy” Renton (Ewan McGregor), “Sick Boy” (Jonny Lee Miller), “Spud” (Ewen Bremner), Tommy (Kevin McKidd) and Begbie (Robert Carlyle, a.k.a. “Crazy Asshole”) are pottering around in the ghettos that have become of the urban development projects that were rife in the 1970s. After infrastructural standards dropped many of the buildings began to deteriorate and become neglected. This crumbling backdrop fills the frame with a sense of pessimism that’s hard to escape.

Around this time as well the proliferation of synthesized heroin was on the rise and drug abuse was starting to become an issue. The introduction of heroin wasn’t so much random as it was evidence of a worsening epidemic as opiates had long been ingrained in the culture, having been brought over to the Scottish shores as early as the late 1600s. Opium use had been fairly widespread, so perhaps it was only inevitable that other, more powerful opiates would become available. When we begin our journey in the film we’re at what feels like a threshold. We’re visiting a community hanging on by a thread as the popularity of heroin and the death toll created by its usage continue to increase.

McGregor’s particularly needle-happy “Rent-Boy,” wanting to make more of his life than thieving from the sick and the helpless so he can get high, acts as the driving force of emotion in a film that’s mostly (and intentionally) numb to such dumb things. (Who needs emotion when you have heroin?) His stream-of-consciousness-like voiceover clues us in to the particulars of being not just being a heroin user, but a heroin lover. Meanwhile his so-called mates around him provide the color commentary — especially Begbie. Begbie, he who “doesn’t do drugs” but “does people.” It’s all a vicious cycle, and the script by John Hodge proves remarkably adept at revealing that harsh reality.

The thing about Trainspotting is how effortlessly it comes across as authentic. It’s authentic, but the writing is so poignant and pained with certain truths about the inequity of the world that you might assume there’d be some level of affectedness that becomes apparent. Not once did I sense the kind of artsy/social conscientiousness that often makes indie darlings, even of similar subjects, targets of derision. There isn’t a false note in any of the performances. The caustic, stinging barbs that is the language in which they speak, while noxious, actually confesses to the humanity that is just begging to emerge from underneath yet another stupor.

If there’s one thing I’ve truly underestimated about this film, it’s that it would ever advocate for characters that are as wayward as these. But it really does want them . . . well, most of them, to succeed. It’s far more of a sympathetic film than I thought it would be. And all of this just makes Trainspotting that much better.

Curious about what’s next? Check out my Blindspot List here.

Recommendation: A movie that moved the needle like this needs no recommendation from me. But to fill page space, it’s good. Addictive, really. I canNOT wait to see the sequel. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 94 mins.

Quoted: “1,000 years from now there will be no guys and no girls, just wankers. Sounds great to me.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.alternativemovieposters.com; http://www.imdb.com 

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26 thoughts on “March Blindspot: Trainspotting (1996)

  1. So fucking happy to hear such positivity from you, man! Sorry for my lack of frequency these days but to stop by and come across this is music to my ears. I’m sure I have recommended this to you for years and could never believe that you hadn’t seen it. Well, now you have and I can stop riding your arse about it. Great, great fucking film. And it’s still in my Top 5 films (has been since its release in 1996). I love it!

    • Yes sir! Damn, it feels good to get it F-I-N-A-L-L-Y under the ‘Have Watched’ column! Good grief man, don’t know why it took me so long but it’s even more credit to the film’s bracing originality and boldness in its performances that even with the sense of familiarity that I’ve gained with reading/hearing about it, Trainspotting still was a potent and exciting watch. Really enjoyed Begbie (nice to hear he isn’t like that in person!) but was flat-out amazed with Ewan McGregor.

      • Yeah, it’s quite something, man. It has an abundance of energy and I still reckon it’s one the most consistently entertaining films I’ve seen. It never loses it’s enjoyment or potency no matter how many times you see it.

        The performances are also very special. Everyone was really on form here. My favourites were Begbie and Spud but McGregor is superb as well. If you haven’t seen Shallow Grave yet, I’d highly recommend that. It came a year or so before Trainspotting and it really showcases the energy of Danny Boyle and McGregor before they hit it big with Trainspotting.

        • I’d definitely keep Shallow Grave in mind then.

          Yeah this movie is just classic. Could well be the high point in my 2017 Blind Spot viewing schedule. This month is Metropolis, which I’m quite excited about as well.

          • Yeah, Shallow Grave is tight little thriller, very much in the style of Blood Simple.

            Man, It’s been so long since I seen Metropolis. That’s one that requires a revisit for me.

  2. Glad you finally caught this and enjoyed it. I think I will have a back to back session of them both when T2 hits DVD. Haven’t seen this one in years, either.

    • Since I’ve heard so many things and read so many things about Trainspotting, it was as if I had once seen this film some time ago and was only being reminded with a second watch. But this was indeed my first experience and it totally lived up to expectations. It’s a powerfully moving film.

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  4. The only thing I’ll add is how much dark humor plays a part in this film. When Renton visits ”The Worst Toilet In Scotland” or Spud gives the worst job interview ever or when he has an unfortunate accident in those sheets…those are glimpses of comedy to alleviate the gloom.

    • Yes — thanks for adding that. This was such a rushed review. I left so many things out. Honestly I could have waffled on into forever about this, I loved it. It felt like the religious experience I’ve heard people describe it as. So well-acted and a painful exploration of the sad realities of being an addict. But that touch of comedy is what really makes Trainspotting worth the watch.

  5. Glad you finally got around to this mate and equally glad it was worth the wait. A pretty formative movie for me, this. Saw it again recently and it remains a stellar piece of cinema. Awesome poster too!

    • Aye, twas a fookin good time! I feel so terrible I left this kind of to the last minute. I hate this review but I loved virtually every second of the movie. Haha! It’s good getting to catch up with it.

        • I guess it’s mostly me now realizing how little I mentioned just HOW BRILLIANT Ewan McGregor is in this movie. And he’s so young! Its hilarious. An excellent performance (oh, and Carlyle — christ!) I can’t believe I neglected to mention them but still, yeah. Great movie.

          • Did I ever tell you that my daughter was in the same class at school as Robert Carlyle’s son? I used to chat to him every day picking the kids up. He’s such a gent and a far cry from Begbie. I still reckon he’s one of Scotland’a best actors but he’s been very quite for too long now.

            • That is an amazing story dude. What are the odds! I really do like the guy, I think the first thing I saw him in was The World is Not Enough where he played the villain Renard. A memorable Bond villain for sure (despite the picture being not-so-great). Undoubtedly the best part of that movie. Thanks for sharing that, thats really cool!

              • My good lady and daughter were also in his house. They were invited to his son’s birthday party. Unfortunately, I was working that day. Bummer, man! I should’ve called in sick. It’s not everyday you get asked to a film star’s abode.

                Yeah, with you on Bond. I wasn’t a fan of that one either but Carlyle was a great villain.

  6. I’m ashamed that I only heard about Trainspotting when they announced there would be a sequel. Nevertheless, it sounds like a fine film. and a 5/5! Sounds like a film with multiple layers. Will definitely take a look when I get my hands on it 🙂

    • Trainspotting I felt guilty about not having seen before. It was such a cultural touchstone in England. It’s weird though. I’ve heard so much about it, read so much about it over the years that it was almost like I had watched it already because as it played it felt familiar. But I def had never watched it before and it was an amazing discovery. Highly recommended.

  7. Wow, excellent observations mate. If I were to write about this it’d obviously be focused on the addiction, but you’ve pointed out so much more. I feel like I need to watch it again now with those themes in mind. And like you said, the emotion in the movie is incredible. Its bleak but the hope shines through all of that. Like the way Renton’s family was so determined to help him… man that part really choked me up when I last watched this. And when he was withdrawing and hallucinating… It gave me shudders. It is so real, it truly is that frightening in real life. It was the first time I’d ever watched it clean, and it knocked me flat.

    5/5, hell yes my friend! 🙂

    The sequel is actually quite good in terms of bringing those four characters back to life. Its a very different movie but not a bad one by any means. One of the few sequels that doesn’t straight up suck, or try to mimic the original. Its its own film, perhaps it shouldn’t have been tagged as a sequel. The book it is based on wasn’t.

    Glad you’ve now seen this, its a classic for sure,

    • Dude it absolutely is! I felt bad having put it off for so long, but the wait was worthwhile. So many great characters, unforgettable scenes. It is a quintessential drug drama. I’m really looking forward to the sequel.

      • The sequel is totally different but the characters are back, that’s for sure. Its a great movie, not as good as the first though. It focuses more on modern addictions too.

        God that baby on the ceiling… that brought up some serious bad memories

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