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‘Trainspotting’: 25 years of Danny Boyle’s cinematic exploration of addiction


I find that people find a way out of misery through humour and it’s humour that’s often unacceptable to people who are not in quite such a state of misery.” – Danny Boyle

It is quite hard to imagine that a film that revolves around the British youth culture of the 1990s, heroin addiction and the AIDS epidemic would have such a universal appeal, but that’s exactly what Danny Boyle’s 1996 masterpiece has managed to achieve. Trainspotting has been accused of glorifying moral depravity and drug use by some. For the rest of us who weren’t preoccupied with sententious bullshit, the film served an entirely different purpose. It bombarded us with the gritty reality of the human condition, littered with used syringes, dead babies and unforgiving glimpses of wasted lives.

Based on Irvine Welsh’s seminal novel, Trainspotting asks several hard-hitting questions all at the same time and laughs at the people who think a panacea exists. For Mark Renton (played by Ewan McGregor) and his eccentric friends, that panacea is heroin. He is aware of how society treats him for not following its guidelines for a “happy” life, for not settling down, buying useless appliances and producing miserable children who would probably grow up to be just as messed up as he is. However, it doesn’t get to him as long as he has the fix for all his problems: “Who needs reasons when you’ve got heroin?” The film follows him on his misadventures with his remarkably quirky partners in crime, Spud (Ewen Bremner), Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller) and Begbie (Robert Carlyle), as they get high, crash and terrorise the streets of Edinburgh.

The crowning achievement of Trainspotting is the magical combination of a stellar soundtrack (which we included on our list of the ‘10 greatest movie soundtracks of all time‘) and Brian Tufano’s fantastic cinematography. Trainspotting’s visual narrative has its own duality: recreating the atmospheric comfort of a heroin high as well as the horrors of withdrawal. Several iconic scenes linger in the mind of the viewers long after they have finished watching the film. You might be taking a dump and suddenly remember Renton diving into the worst toilet of Scotland, fishing around for opium suppositories in unholy waters. Boyle uses freeze frames and a punk-version of the Rashomon Effect to navigate the varying accounts of troubled individuals who have come to the grand consensus that truth and morality have been rendered obsolete. The editing embodies the crackhead energy that operates throughout the film, like when Renton physically jumps from one scene right into the next one. Boyle is dead serious about jump cuts.

Despite the insistence of the ones who claim that Trainspotting is a call for hedonistic recklessness, the film clearly criticises such escapism. The pivotal moment in the film happens when one of their friends discover that her baby died of neglect because all of them were too busy shooting dope. The camera pans over the bloated corpse of the innocent child, framing the legacy of their actions. Instead of taking responsibility, all of them just use more heroin to deal with their pain. Addiction is a vicious cycle and it takes a lot of willpower to escape, something that is shown again and again as Renton keeps promising that he will finally quit. The withdrawal scenes are visually spectacular as well, forcing Renton to confront his own fears. The walls close in on him, he sees the dead baby crawling on his ceiling and is overwhelmed by the intolerable sounds of game shows. Although he does manage to kick his crippling habit and find a job as a real estate agent (which he refers to as a sophisticated form of scamming), Renton is drawn right back into a life of crime when Sick Boy, Begbie and Spud convince him to spend all of his savings for a drug deal.

In a lot of ways, Renton’s life is the saddest of them all. Even though he is surrounded by friends, his loneliness always seeps out of his eyes. When he does get lucky, it’s with an underage girl who threatens to call the police if he stops seeing her. Renton watches his friends get arrested, die of AIDS-related complications and is constantly subjected to the heartbreaking look of disappointment that is plastered on his parents’ faces. The highest point of his life is a successful drug deal worth £16000 which he steals from his friends (he does leave some of it for Spud) and promises that he is going to change. It’s an old promise, a stale one. With great contempt for the world and an amoral smile, he swears:

“I’m gonna be just like you. The job, the family, the fucking big television. The washing machine, the car, the compact disc and electric tin opener, good health, low cholesterol, dental insurance, mortgage, starter home, leisure wear, luggage, three piece suite, DIY, game shows, junk food, children, walks in the park, nine to five, good at golf, washing the car, choice of sweaters, family Christmas, indexed pension, tax exemption, clearing gutters, getting by, looking ahead, the day you die.”

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