Trainspotting: Amateur Criticism
Trainspotting is an adaptation of a popular novel by noted contemporary Scottish author Irvine Welsh. Superficially, the film deviates significantly from Irvine’s vision (the novel presents a largely episodic and loosely connected daisy chain of events, as opposed to the somewhat more linear flow of the film), but admirably retains the intended sensation that is the reward earned by interested readers and viewers alike.
That sensation is, in fact, the theme of the film: the relentlessly tightening belt of addiction not only to heroin, but to the poisonous people and environment that envelop the protagonist of this (mostly) first person narrative, a barely tolerable junky by the name of Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor). This dreary view of social determinism in action is sharpened on the whetstone of the narrowness of possibilities afforded the residents of late eighties Edinburgh.
As the daily misadventures Renton and his nebulous group of “mates” unfold, director Danny Boyle (28 Days Later…, Slumdog Millionaire) introduces the viewer to the heroin addicts' rat race of working hard to make money with which to annihilate one’s self. With this less than subtle approach the theme becomes easily accessible; Boyle makes it clear that Renton and company, in the course of their burglarizing, scamming, and begging, work just as hard as their law abiding, if under- employed counterparts. The group’s final destinations, however, are far and away from that of a retirement high-rise dwelling pensioner.
Remember How Much You Loved Trainspotting?
The story begins in media res: its evolution is touched off with a flash forward scene of Renton and his heroin-fiend accomplice, Spud (Ewen Bremner, who played the role of Renton in the original theater production) in the heat of a mad dash to escape security guards; this scene is used again later, immediately preceding the two facing justice and Spud’s incarceration.
The cycle of highs and lows, successful scores and failed attempts to kick an unkickable habit begins. At every turn Renton is greeted by friends who drag him down, an environment that offers no incentive for self-improvement, and the ever deepening pit that is the life he has “chosen”.
In the course of one failed attempt at freeing himself from the yoke of addiction, Renton follows his friends and his reborn libido to a dance club where he meets, and shortly thereafter has sex with, a teenaged schoolgirl: Diane (Kelly McDonald).
Renton then steals a sex tape from his only clean-cut associate, Tommy (Kevin McKidd), which initiates the destruction of a long time relationship for his friend, later resulting in a fatal “dalliance” (in that his period of addiction is relatively brief) with heroin use that end with his contracting AIDS and succumbing to toxoplasmosis caused by contact with a kitten.
Eventually Renton makes a break for London at the suggestion of Diane, and his lot in life improves briefly ( he sees all the tourist spots, just like I did! Does that make me more like Ewan McGregor or more like a heroin addict?) until his past hunts him down in the form of his hard-drinking, sociopathic mate, Begbie, who is on the lam. He is followed shortly by Sean Connery-obsessed grifter Sick Boy (Johnny Lee Miller) and Spud. They have, as one would expect, brought trouble with them, in the form of a dangerous plan to obtain and resell heroin.
In the end, Renton leaves his old life behind by pilfering the profits of their collective narco-venture and stealing away to parts unknown (in the novel he travels to Amsterdam; this seems decidedly ill-advised for a person with recurring substance abuse issues, and could be called one of few instances in which the film improves upon, rather than simply compliments, the novel).
The technical elements orchestrated by Danny Boyle in bringing Trainspotting to life are integral to its success as a whole. The multi-layered soundtrack, satisfying in its own right, closely mirrors the up and down pace of the film, while reflecting the sub-cultural roots of the core characters.
The sets chosen included both Scotland and England based venues, and the natural dreariness contributes to the reality of the haze of futurelessness that hangs over Renton’s head. Weirdly contrasting use of color gives a vague sense of other-worldliness, and invites those who do not partake of the poppy to visit a place that they will hopefully never get any closer to. Camera work is clever but generally straightforward, with the exception of the early toilet-diving scene and those depicting overdose and withdrawal (baby on the ceiling).
Characters and Symbolism
In a strangely surreal world steeped in heroin, any search for symbolic meaning is likely to turn up a well supported result. For this author’s part, the most striking instance is found in the characters that surround the protagonist, who can each be equated to a facet of his life or personality. For the sake of integrity, it bears mentioning that I am not the only one to equate these characters to parts of Renton's psyche.
- Spud: He is the part of Renton that remains blissfully unaware, and to expect any ambition from him is pure folly.
- Sick Boy: Renton without conscience, he is a nightmare alter-ego.
- Begbie: The very embodiment of addiction, he is a drunken slave to unbridled rage and passion without regard for consequence. Begbie relishes conflict like a dope fiend craves a hit.
- Tommy: His life represents the parallel path that Mark Renton could have chosen long ago; his death informs us that, no matter what Renton does, there is no going back.
- Diana: While self-reliant and strong, she could be said to represent the youthful optimism that Renton has traded for long, wasted years as an addict. In the act of sex with her, Renton becomes the needle; taking a little blood before issuing forth.
Long before I had ever heard of the BFI Top 100 list, this film had affectedly me on a very personal level. Events in my own life at the time I saw it could have easily been drawn as parallels, and I still listen to the soundtrack every now and again.
At the risk of sounding cliché, the character of Renton is one we can all see a bit of ourselves in. I found this film to be, above all else, an inspirational tale of triumph over one's self. If a loser like Mark Renton can pull himself out of such a fast nose-dive, so can we all.