It took me way too long to see this film. Trainspotting is naturally the kind of film I’d love – a social dark comedy about the degradation of society, with quirky characters, brutal violence and an Iggy Pop-infused soundtrack. I don’t have an answer as to why I waited until only now to sit and watch Trainspotting in its entirety, after years of seeing fragments of it here and there. I don’t know why it took me so long to watch it, but I’ll be damned if I am not glad that I watched it, because it is every bit of a masterpiece that it is known to be.
As we all know, Trainspotting is set in Edinburgh in the 1990s, and centres around a group of young criminals and hoodlums, led by the sneaky but goodhearted Mark “Rent Boy” Renton (Ewan McGregor), who along with his friends Daniel “Spud” Murphy (Ewen Bremner), Simon “Sick Boy” Williamson (Jonny Lee Miller) and Francis “Franco” Begbie (Robert Carlyle) navigate the challenges of being youth in a postmodern version of Scotland, near the turn of the century. Stuck in economically-harsh circumstances, many of them fall to the side of being heroin junkies – and heroin is as much a star of Trainspotting as any of the actors in this film. There isn’t much of a story to go on other than the film following Renton as he tries and continously fails to become sober from heroin, and how he interacts with his fellow junkies, all of whom have issues of their own that prevent them from living decent lives.
I honestly think Ewan McGregor is one of the more underrated actors working today. It isn’t that he isn’t acclaimed – I just think he’s got a lot more to offer than most people would expect. While he has been trying for years now to be a solid leading man in Hollywood productions, it is his earlier work that paints a portrait of a very different kind of actor. McGregor’s performance as Rent Boy didn’t only serve as his breakout performance – it helped define his career. It is an unforgettable and wholly incredible portrayal of a troubled young man who wants to get better but doesn’t know how. McGregor carries this film, and while his slightly more low-key and melodic (but no less defiant) work in a film like Shallow Grave did give him his start, Trainspotting is the film that gave him the career. Even though I only watched this film properly for the first time now, I have always pictured McGregor in his iconic pose as Rent Boy on the poster for this film. It is a strange performance because while it may not be a complex character, McGregor makes it one, and his gives such a layered and interesting performance, he adds so much to the junkie trope.
Trainspotting isn’t only carried on McGregor’s shoulders, as evident by the fact that this is undeniably an ensemble effort of a film. Ewen Bremner plays Spud, and while initially I thought this was going to be the same dumb, foul-mouther character Bremner played in Mike Leigh’s masterful Naked, it turned out to be quite a different performance, and his third-act development was wonderful. Jonny Lee Miller has a very interesting character, and even if Sick Boy isn’t the most prominent in this film, I somehow felt like he was still more present in his scenes than he actually was, giving one of the most offbeat and strange performances in the film. Much like McGregor, it is strange to see Miller in a film like this, considering his more mainstream work has painted him as an actor who is typecast into roles that are quite different from this.
Robert Carlyle is a reliable character actor, and he’s been good in a great deal of things – such as his career-best work in The Full Monty (I haven’t seen The Full Monty in a very long time – I should probably watch it again at some point), and it is undeniable that Trainspotting also served as a place where Carlyle was giving quite a substantial boost in terms of fame. Honestly, I wasn’t the biggest fan of his character – Begbie is supposed to be utterly despicable, but he rather just appears to be pretty annoying and he isn’t nearly as intimidating as one would expect. Carlyle does play the role well, its just the character wasn’t written particularly well, which is unfortunate, but it doesn’t spoil the film in the least. Kelly McDonald makes quite an explosive debut as Diane, the underage lover of Rent Boy. I really wanted to see more from her (and judging from her predominance in a lot of the film’s publicity material, I expected her to play a much more important role, but she only appeared in a handful of scenes). As a whole, the cast is wonderful and each one does a great job of bringing this film to life and giving these characters the complexities they deserve.
I really miss the Danny Boyle that made films like Trainspotting and Shallow Grave – the hardcore, punk musician of a film director that captured society and threw it onto the screen in a way that is anarchic and magical. While films like 127 Hours and Slumdog Millionare are impressive achievements, they just don’t speak to the extraordinary talent that Boyle exhibited with previous films. Trainspotting is the film that thrust Boyle into having a reputation as a brilliant director, and it is this film that allowed him to enter into the mainstream and make these projects that pale in comparison to his earlier films. Luckily for us, Boyle has always shown that he is a great filmmaker, even with subpar material, and Trainspotting is an audacious sophomore feature that follows up a brilliant debut that was Shallow Grave.
Creatively, Trainspotting is really unlike any other film I’ve seen of its kind – much of this film does very well in imitating what heroin is for the viewer, and through some inventive cinematography and camera tricks (both which I will talk about when I review Man with a Movie Camera soon), this film has an uneasy sense of dread that hangs above it, and it truly creates an atmosphere of confusion, terror and ultimately, utter fun. The cinematography was done by veteran cameraman Brian Tufano, who strangely seems to be the only person who didn’t benefit from the heapings of fame this film brought to other members of the cast and crew, with his only other big post-Trainspotting gig was the cinematography on Billy Elliot. Not only is the cinematography awe-inspiring, Trainspotting also has a energetic and brilliantly-chosen soundtrack that helped give this film the same sense of uneasiness, culminating in one of the most frenzied and insane cinematic adventures the viewer can undertake.
Trainspotting is a great film. It is iconic and a true cult film. The performances are top-notch, the visuals are stunning and the story is hilarious and terrifying. I thought it was a great film, and I really hope that the sequel (which I hope to see soon) keeps to this same standard. Trainspotting is one of the most iconic independent films for a reason, with that reason being it is an unbelievably bonkers, strange and off-the-wall portrayal of a society broken, and the individuals who just try and get by, through any means necessary. A truly wonderful film that deserves it status as essential viewing.