20 Years On: Trainspotting (1996)


It’s that time again: enough sand has passed through the hourglass of eternity to discuss another classic in retrospective fashion. This week marks the 20th Anniversary of TRAINSPOTTING, Danny Boyle’s striking adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s game-changing novel about Edinburgh heroin addicts.

It’s Edinburgh in the late 80s, and Renton (Ewan McGregor) is trying to kick a bad habit. Try as he might to quit, the lure of one last hit with his mates always brings him back under the influence of his cruel and terrible mistress.  The world of heroin addiction fueled by petty crime is all he knows, and soon he must chose between being happily enslaved by his addiction or cleaning up and taking on whatever else life throws at him. 

Danny Boyle’s regular screenwriter John Hodge respectfully adapts Irvine Welsh’s story, lifting key scenes (“The Worst Toilet in Scotland”) and memorable dialogue (these remain the most articulate, swearily poetic addicts you could ever hope to meet) completely intact, but he isn’t afraid to streamline things elsewhere for the screen either by combining characters and omitting extraneous scenes. The result is zippy and to the point, perhaps missing a little of the detailed richness of the novel but always with what our protagonists are going through and how their world is changing for better or worse pushed to the forefront.

The casting could hardly be better, from Ewan McGregor’s would-be-moral compass Renton to Ewen Bremner’s affable moron Spud and Robert Carlyle’s volcanic and utterly terrifying Begbie. Renton has arguably had a few of his rough edges removed by casting the charming McGregor in the role, and I miss his benefit fraud scheme from the novel, but Bremner feels like spud lurched straight from page to screen and it was a stroke of genius to cast the diminutive, wiry Carlyle as a character envisioned as tall and broad – somehow Franco feels so much more chilling and unpredictable this way. Every cast member gets their moment to shine with hints at promising careers to come, and all convincingly covey humanity warts and all.

Boyle and editor Masahiro Hirakubo recognise the potential for surrealism in a story where its heroes are so often tripping. Renton’s dive into an ocean through a hellish, bottomless toilet to retrieve his recently ejected opium suppositories and his sink into the oblivion of a shag carpet following an overdose from a bad batch represent  two of his very lowest points juxtaposed with beautiful and bizarre imagery. The filmmakers don’t avoid the upsetting realities of drug addiction, and certainly don’t glamorise it as some commentators so wrongly claimed (you have to wonder if they even saw the film) but it can be a powerful tool indeed to marry horror with beauty, the real with the surreal.

Trainspotting is like a time capsule of pop culture and societal concerns in the late 80s/early 90s – the old guard of underground rock music (Iggy Pop, Lou Reed) giving way to electronica and rave culture (Leftfield, Underworld); unemployment, drug addiction and AIDS mere headlines for many and inescapable everyday life for others. It certainly looks like a film made two decades ago, but the energy, self-awareness and sheer style on show keeps it from feeling too dated. Grimy bedsit sets and the clever use of Glasgow as a cheaper stand-in for Edinburgh helps Trainspotting overcome its budgetary limitations, keeps our focus on the characters and steadfastly avoids a glamourous tourist’s view of “Embra” (the kind that poor Fringe-goer came looking for before our heroes follow him into a bathroom to ruin his day).

Much like with Welsh’s novel, the film is witty and very funny, alternating between being emotionally crushing and uplifting as Renton and co bounce between choosing heroin and choosing life. It’s left pretty ambiguous what the characters will make of the rest of their time on Earth – we’re apparently going to find out in a film sequel very soon – but you have to be optimistic for Renton as he leaves his old life and friends behind and begins a new one, reprising his opening monologue almost word-for-word, but with a decidedly different tone in his voice. SSP


About Sam Sewell-Peterson

Writer and film fanatic fond of black comedies, sci-fi, animation and films about dysfunctional families.
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3 Responses to 20 Years On: Trainspotting (1996)

  1. Pingback: Looking Back and Looking Forward: 2016, Part 2 | SSP Thinks Film

  2. Pingback: Review: T2 Trainspotting (2017) | SSP Thinks Film

  3. Pingback: Review: Parasite (2019) | SSP Thinks Film

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