TRAINSPOTTING - Film (Movie) Plot and Review

UK, 1996

Director: Danny Boyle

Production: Channel Four Films, Figment Films, PolyGram Filmed Entertainment (U.S.), and Noel Gay Motion Picture Company; color, 35mm; running time: 93 minutes (94 in United States); length: 2650 meters. Released 23 February 1996. Filmed in Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Corrour Station, Scotland, and London, England. Cost: $3.5 million (U.S.).

Producer: Christopher Figg, Andrew Macdonald; screenplay: John Hodge; from the novel by Irvine Welsh; cinematographer: Brian Tufano; editor: Masahiro Hirakubo; casting: Andy Pryor, Gail Stevens; production design: Kave Quinn; art direction: Tracey Gallacher; costume design: Rachael Fleming; makeup: Robert McCann; special effects: Grant Mason, Tony Steers.

Cast: Ewan McGregor ( Mark "Rent-boy" Renton ); Ewen Bremner ( Daniel "Spud" Murphy ); Jonny Lee Miller ( Simon David "Sick Boy" Williamson ); Kevin McKidd ( Tommy MacKenzie ); Robert Carlyle ( Francis (Franco) Begbie ); Kelly MacDonald ( Diane ); Peter Mullan ( Swanney ); James Cosmo ( Mr. Renton ); Eileen Nicholas ( Mrs. Renton ); Susan Vidler ( Allison ); Pauline Lynch ( Lizzy ); Shirley Henderson ( Gail ); Stuart McQuarrie ( Gavin/US Tourist ); Irvine Welsh ( Mikey Forrester ); Dale Winton ( Game Show Host ).

Awards: British Academy Award for Best Screenplay (Adapted) (John Hodge), 1996; Seattle International Film Festival Golden Space Needle Awards for Best Director (Danny Boyle) and Best Film, 1996; Boston Society of Film Critics Award for Best Film, 1996; Evening

Standard British Film Award for Best Screenplay (Hodge), 1997; London Critics Circle ALFS Awards for British Screenwriter of the Year (Hodge) and British Actor of the Year (McGregor), 1997; Bodil Festival Award for Best European Film (Boyle), 1997; Brit Award for Best Soundtrack, 1997.



Hodge, John, Trainspotting , London, 1996.


Charity, Tom, "The Other Side of the Tracks," interview with Danny Boyle in Time Out (London), no. 1328, 31 January 1996.

O'Hagan, Andrew, and Geoffrey Macnab, "The Boys Are Back in Town," in Sight and Sound (London), vol. 6, no. 2, February 1996.

Kemp, Philip, review in Sight and Sound (London), vol. 6, no. 3, March 1996.

Kermode, Mark, "End Notes," Sight and Sound (London), vol. 6, no. 3, March 1996.

Review in Positif (Paris), no. 425–426, July-August 1996.

Kennedy, Harlan, "Kiltspotting: Highland Reels," in Film Comment (New York), vol. 32, no. 4, July-August 1996.

Thompson, Andrew, "Trains, Veins and Heroin Deals," in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), vol. 77, no. 8, August 1996.

McCarthy, Todd, "Highland Fling," in Premiere (London), August 1996.

Kauffman, S., "On Films: Scotland Now, England Then," in New Republic , 19–26 August 1996.

Rall, Veronika, " Trainspotting ," in EPD Film (Frankfurt), vol. 13, no. 8, August 1996.

Gelman-Waxner, Libby, "Swill Decor," in Premiere (Boulder), November 1996.

Carroll, Tomm, "Criterion scores uncut heroin heroes," in DGA (Los Angeles), vol. 22, no. 2, May-June 1997.

Cardullo, Bert, "Fiction into Film, or Bringing Welsh to a Boyle," in Literature/Film Quarterly (Salisbury, Maryland), vol. 25, no. 3, July 1997.

* * *

Until the mid-1990s, those British films that achieved any kind of overseas success were generally well-behaved affairs. There were sensitive literary adaptations from the school of Merchant-Ivory; innocuous comedies about the twitteries of the idle rich; or, for more rarified audiences, the wry, politically-charged work of Ken Loach and Mike Leigh. The idea of a British movie that was fast, rude, energetic, scabrously funny, and fizzing with switched-on youth appeal would have seemed outlandish. Then came Trainspotting. The team of director Danny Boyle, screenwriter John Hodge, and producer Andrew Macdonald had already signaled the arrival of a new dynamic force in British cinema with their first film, the stylish, pitch-black comedy Shallow Grave (1994). Trainspotting shares its predecessor's headlong trajectory, while replacing its visual elegance and poised cruel humour with a mass of relentlessly shitty detail and a manic cackle of wrecked mirth—elements drawn from its source material, Irvine Welsh's cult novel of Edinburgh junkiedom. Like Welsh's prose, Trainspotting moves with the rhythm and energy of the fractured, street-level culture it portrays—and even celebrates. At once exhilarating and despairing, lurching from exuberance to inertia, from frenetic humour to gut-wrenching squalor, it enters into the lives of its deadbeat heroin-addicts on their own terms, without patronising or pitying. When the characters are hyped—whether on sex, drugs, booze, or violence—the film shares their mood, the camera scurrying, swooping, gliding or, as during one lad's speed-fueled monologue to a gobsmacked interview panel, pogo-ing back and forth before him in irrepressible delight.

Boyle's signature visual tropes—frenetic camera, skewed framing, overheated colours—are constantly in evidence. Scenes are often mockingly stylised: the mugging of a hapless American tourist in a pub toilet is choreographed into a deliberate, formalised ballet. Brian Tufano's lighting and Kave Quinn's production design move easily from heightened realism to near-surrealism. Scenes featuring the pusher Swanney, known as "Mother Superior" (from the length of his habit), are bathed in saturated reds and blues, in ironic simulation of light through stained glass. And when after the cot-death of a baby the agonised young mother's smackhead friends stand helplessly around, unable to drag themselves out of a state of numbed non-reaction, all colour seems drained from the scene, grey faces in a grey gloom.

Boyle draws superb ensemble acting from his cast—especially from Robert Carlyle as Begbie, a scarifying psychotic so high on mindless violence he doesn't even need drugs. As Mark Renton, the narrator through whose frequently zonked-out consciousness events are refracted, Ewan McGregor gives a fine weaselly performance, at once spiky and vulnerable. Rich in local colour—it was largely filmed around the mean streets of some of Edinburgh's less salubrious districts— Trainspotting is thoroughly Scottish in its caustic tone and gallows humour. Not that there's the least hint of tartan nationalism; on the contrary. Dragged off by a friend to appreciate the glories of the Scots countryside, Renton launches into a bitingly contemptuous riff on his fellow-countrymen. "I don't hate the English. They're just wankers. We're colonised by wankers. We can't even pick a decent, healthy culture to be colonised by. No—we're ruled by effete arseholes! What does that make us?"

The film's pace and insolent, scatological humour, set to a pulsing Britpop score, appealed strongly to younger audiences, as did its unpreachy attitude to drugs. As Renton reflects, in the script's most notorious line, heroin may screw you up but it can also give you a high a thousand times better "than the best orgasm you ever had." Though never discounting the ravages of heroin addiction, the film-makers rejected any simplistic just-say-no attitude. "The whole reason we wanted to do this film," Boyle remarked at the time, "is to say people do drugs because you actually have a good time. That's the bit that's always left out. . . . In the end the film conforms like every other film about heroin, it shows you how in fact it will destroy you. But there are people, like Irvine Welsh, who go through it and come out the other side. You have to tell the truth about that, even though you're accused of encouraging drug use."

Accused, of course, they were. The ensuing controversy did the film nothing but good at the box-office, and Trainspotting —along with its distinctive orange-toned publicity material—became one of the most influential films of the decade, headbutting audiences the world over into a lastingly new perception of what British films could look like. Boyle found himself compared to Scorsese, Kubrick, Tarantino, and other masters of guerilla cinema—influences he readily acknowledges, along with Dick Lester and Kathryn Bigelow. "I feed off other stuff deliberately. That's not unhealthy. . . . I love looting people and ideas." Since then, inevitably, Trainspotting has itself been looted, giving rise to a rash of often mediocre British crime 'n drugs youth-culture movies. Boyle, Hodge, and Macdonald, meanwhile, have yet to equal—let alone surpass—the impact of their seminal second movie.

—Philip Kemp

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