For all the misguided claims of the fawning Four Weddings And A Funeral fans, Trainspotting was the real shot in the arm (pun intended) that the British film industry needed in the mid-90s. A gritty, funny, disturbing and honest look at the darker side of life of the UK; it was proof if ever it was needed that British films could be a worldwide success without being soppy rom-coms with some floppy haired, bumbling fop in the lead role.
Trainspotting was the second teaming of director Danny Boyle, producer Andrew Macdonald, screenwriter John Hodge and up-and-coming young actor Ewan MacGregor. The team had already struck gold with 1994’s critically acclaimed dark thriller Shallow Grave and had regrouped for a second project – adapting Scots writer Irvine Welsh’s darkly comic and highly controversial Trainspotting, a novel possibly indecipherable to anyone not familiar with Scottish dialect.
The tale is a simple one; a refreshingly non-judgemental trip through the trials and tribulations of a group of Scottish heroin addicts told through the eyes of one such self-confessed junkie, Mark Renton (Ewan MacGregor). Renton is determined to quit “scag” but faces an uphill struggle, against not only his addiction but his group of friends and fellow users who prove more of a hindrance than a help in his efforts to get clean. The movie follows the ups and downs, successes and failures he encounters on his journey. We follow events through Renton with his narrative voice-over threading the film, providing the viewer with his honest reasoning, rational and dark humour throughout.
From the hyperactive opening sequence where we are introduced to the main players right up to the final scene, Trainspotting oozes its own sense of gritty low-budget style, something all the lens filters and CGI in the world couldn’t do for MTV alumni hacks like McG. Danny Boyle perfectly captures the grimy look and feel of inner city Edinburgh of the 80s but gives it a vibrant and slightly surreal edge that perfectly reflects the surreal and detached world of drug addicts. He also provides what is in my opinion one of the most engaging and slightly disturbing scenes of cold turkey fever ever committed to film, again all helped along by the film’s ingrained sly dark sense of humour. If you’ve ever even been slightly delirious with a serious flu, you’ll be able to relate to this distorted surreal fever-like section of the film.
Where Trainspotting stands out from most other drug-related movies is that it refuses to fall on either side of the fence, being neither judgemental nor celebratory of its controversial subject matter. It doesn’t flinch from showing both the exhilarating highs and horrific lows such a terrible habit and lifestyle entails. It is a testimony to the skills of all involved that a film like this manages to make us laugh out loud one minute, make us want to look away in revulsion the next, and yet always remains engaging - even when the worst of worse tragedies befalls the group in what is without a doubt the film’s most controversial scene.
Despite Ewan’s stand-out role as our charming protagonist, it is Robert Carlyle who gives the real show-stopping performance. He steals every scene he is in, giving growling, swaggering psychotic thug Begbie such a wonderfully over the top performance of menace and aggression that despite being such a thoroughly contemptible person, you can’t help but like him too. Johnny Lee Miller, Ewan Bremner and Kevin McKidd all provide more than ample acting foil to our main characters and give a real sense of the awkward and ultimately fragile relationships that exist between the group.
Ultimately though Trainspotting isn’t just about drugs. When taken at another level it’s a movie about a phenomenon so common in real life – that painful and awkward moment when childhood friends finally grow up and as a result grow apart as they are forced to make choices that send them on divergent courses in life. We’ve all experienced it – though few in such extreme circumstances - and maybe that’s part of what makes it work so well.
Disc 1 has the commentary and is by far the best of the extras. Recorded shortly after filming for the original laserdisc, the commentary features Danny Boyle, Ewan MacGregor, John Hodge and Andrew Macdonald. All parties give an interesting and often amusing insight into the making of the movie and on-location anecdotes from geographically incorrect nightclubs to American audiences repulsed by proper fat-filled Scottish breakfasts to Ewan’s old fixation rousing it’s head as he discusses the size of the other actors’ manhoods.
Also on the first disc is a collection of nine deleted scenes. These scenes are all presented in their rough-cut form and can either be viewed separately or as branch-offs during the main feature. Some of these are simple cuts for pacing that are no loss. Others are longer character-building scenes that build on the excellent foundation the movie has already laid down.
Disc 2 is a disappointing waste. The Interviews section provides several short interviews with the main crew both back during filming and more recently. The longest of these runs an unimpressively short 5 minutes. Author of the original novel Irvine Welsh, while not the most charismatic or liveliest person, gives a good insight into the logic of adapting books into movies and the difference between the two. Screenwriter John Hodge explains how he managed the difficult task of adapting a rather plotless novel into a coherent story and how A Nightmare on Elm Street ended up being the unlikely inspiration for one of the movie’s more surreal scenes. Producer Andrew MacDonald coasts through his interview. Rather than throwing any real insight, basically playing the “yeah, everything was great and it all fell in to place and smelled of roses” angle. Finally, director Danny Boyle makes for the most engaging and energetic of those being interviewed and gives a real insight into the production and the process of making movies in general. However, as mentioned, the glaring absence is the cast. MacGregor himself only pops up in one very brief interview snippet discussing the Calton Athletic soccer team – a group of ex-addicts who provided the crew with the first hand knowledge of drug culture they needed. The lack of Ewan and the other main characters from these featurettes is unfortunate especially considering their importance in making the movie work and that very few of them have massive careers at the moment.
Behind The Needle offers a multi-angle look at the process of making the injection scene with a prosthetic arm. Danny Boyle offers a walk-through in one "angle", another lets you view a Hi-8 video on-location during the filming of the scene featuring lots of thick Scottish accent action. The final angle is simply the two side-by-side. It’s interesting if you’re in to the filming process itself, but many may just find it dull.
Finally, "Cannes" is a bizarre and ultimately redundant section featuring interviews with various almost-celebrities who talk about Trainspotting at the 1996 Cannes Film Festival, and the bog standard biographies, gallery and trailers collection round off what is rather a disappointing disc.
Reviewed By: Stuart Wood