Director: Danny Boyle
With the long belated sequel being released we thought we’d take a crack at one of the most important British films of the 90s, (there weren’t many), and one of my personal favourites; Trainspotting.
Trainspotting follows the story of Mark ‘Rentboy’ Renton in 90s Edinburgh trying his level best to give up heroin amongst friends who really, don’t help. This includes Sick Boy, Spud, Swanney, Tommy, and Begbie, most of which are introduced to us in a lovely, now iconic football montage.
I think it’s things like that football montages that help form the genius of Trainspotting. I said in my Don’t Breathe review, (here), about how in Trainspotting the genius of it is that the characters aren’t just heroin addict wasters, a quality probably inherited from the Irvine Welsh novel which I still havn’t read but it was Danny Boyle, (Slumdog Millionaire, 28 Days Later…), who made the observation. The characters of this film are funny, eloquent, they know a lot about Sean Connery, and they’re crap at football. Trainspotting does have some incredible cinematic sequences but at the heart of it are characters who are, self admitedly bad people, but not completely, and not irredeemably.
Considering how ill experienced most of the cast were it is incredible quite how well played they all are as well. Ewen Bremmer, (Snatch, Black Hawk Down), who plays Spud, is an extraordinarily underrated actor and he is definitely not Spud in real life, if you see him in interviews he is much more intelligent and confident and eloquent. He really goes for it in this film, and he’s extraordiarily funny, that sequence with the dirty sheets is quite something. As soon as you see Johnny Lee Miller’s, (Elementary), Sick Boy on screen with his muscular neck and his schock of blonde hair he is an immediately imposing figure, this mixture of cheeky chap, and almost Anton Chigurgh from No Country for Old Men or Ben Mendelsohn from Rogue One. He has this sort of perreneial bad guy, wriath of impending doom sense about him some times. Although Begbie played by Robert Carlyle, (28 Weeks Later, The Full Monty), is probably the more showy performance, and defintiely the scarier one, Sick Boy is actually probably the more destructive influence in Renton’s life.
I heard Danny Leigh say that Danny Boyle always directs like he’s on his 7th can of Red Bull, and there are many sequences like that in Trainspotting, but the best thing is when he lets silence rest on screen. There’s one scene in a pub that’s one of the best scenes I’ve seen in a long time. What people do forget though is that although, for example The Worst Toilet In Scotland scene, even though that scene goes about as far as it can down the rabbit hole it comes out into something ethereal and funny and beautiful. Like the overdose sequence becomes something surreal and wonderful and melancholic whereas a different director would just make it horrible. There’s actually a lovely story about a sound editor who showed a producer the first cut of that scene set to Perfect Day by Lou Reed and the producer said ‘it’s wonderful, don’t show Danny because we can’t afford the song’ and it was actually David Bowie of all people who saw Shallow Grave and loved it and convicned Lou Reed and Iggy Pop to let Danny Boyle use their songs.
The thing is about trainspotting is, to quote Mark Kermode, at Danny Boyle’s Olympic opening ceremony we could have divers coming out of fountained toilets and babies with their heads turned round the wrong way crawling over ceilings and we’d all go, yeah it’s Trainspotting, but we’d forget quite how striking and horrible and incredible those sequences were the first time. They just happened to have passed into the general public conciousness now. It’s also incredible that such a high brow film makes such low brow humour work because it does have a bit of a pop sensibility. It’s probably the most mainstream surrealist peice you’ll ever see.
The film isn’t perfect, the film does feel a bit split in half and as a Londoner the introduction-to-London montage is, frankly, laughable in it’s pastiche but maybe it’s meant to be. After all Renton goes to London to get away from crippling heroin addiction so he would maybe idealise it in the manner of someone who’s never been there; before he sees it can be just as seedy as anywhere else. It can also be at times, over edited, but for a purpose, because a lot of scenes are absolutely perfectly edited. In the end whatever problems Trainspotting has, which are few, you can’t deny the film’s cultural impact, a modern classic, there’s nothing quite like it, and it actually adapts it’s sourse material better than most, streamlining the story, maintaining the qualities of the book, and adding plenty of cinematic verve.