The 1990’s were a transitional time. The end of the Cold War saw culture enter a phase of massive diversity in the early part of the decade, and in the UK a line of youth culture movements that’d started in the 1950’s saw rave and dance culture set out a path to the future, or at least a possible past. By the time Danny Boyle’s excellent Trainspotting was released in 1996, Britpop, with all its harking back to the past, had taken control of popular British youth culture, and yet, there was still this drive towards a future which was uncertain. If there’s any bit of art which encapsulates those pre-Tony Blair days it is Trainspotting.
Based upon Irvine Welsh’s 1993 novel of the same name, the film is centres around a group of (mainly) unemployed friends living in Edinburgh – Oh, and most of them are heroin addicts. Unlike most other films that deal with addiction this isn’t unrelenting in its bleak portrayal of drug addiction and how it affects those involved; there’s a positive angle on the addiction elements as we have to see what attracts people to the lifestyle, and we see among the grimness, the friendships and camaraderie that makes heroin a lifestyle choice (as Boyle and Welsh put it) for people. It’s a sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll lifestyle portrayed in all its glory, as well as its harrowing consequences examined in a light that warns of its dangers.
An ensemble powerhouse cast featuring Ewan McGregor as Renton, Johnny Lee Miller as Sick Boy (who spends the film cosplaying as Christopher Lambert from Subway), Euan Bremner as Spud, Kelly McDonald as Diane and Robert Carlye’s terrifying performance as the psychotic Begbie, light up the film. There’s not a bad performance in to be found, and as for the plot there’s more a series of vaguely related events before we get to the end of the film featuring the big heroin deal to London gangsters which will make our main protagonists relatively rich.
What Trainspotting does though is tell a story of the 80’s transition into the 90’s as the UK shifted from the early days of Thatcherism, to the pre-Blair days where it seemed anything was possible. The film is told though Renton’s experiences so we see him and his friends being old punks loving Iggy Pop in the 80’s before the lure of beats per minute and the excitement of those times entice them into rave culture in the 90’s (it’s often missed the film takes place over years) as Renton and friends try to enjoy the delights of the Thatcher-era in their own way. That involves selling heroin to gangsters, and Renton’s betrayal of his own friends.
But Trainspotting is as much a searing black comedy as it is drama, and it perfectly toes the line between both. On one hand it possesses the power to leave you in hysterics witnessing the aftermath of Spud’s booze-induced incontinence. Then, on the other end of the spectrum, it’ll leave you rattled to your core with its occasional forays into surreal and disturbing terrains. Once you’ve seen the baby crawl across the ceiling you’ll vow right there and then to stay away from the needle.
The 1990’s were a weird, thrilling exciting time. Trainspotting is a film that defined a certain time before we created culture based upon the past than looking to the future. The irony in this is a sequel, T2 (a terrible name that drops visions of a drug addicted cyborg Arnold Schwarzenegger running around the streets of Edinburgh trying to fight Begbie) is due in 2017 which is reflective of where we are in the 21st century where nostalgia is a dominant driver of modern culture.
None of this though diminishes the power and the joy of Danny Boyle’s superb film. Ranked at number 10 in the British Film Institute’s Top 100 British films, and voted the greatest Scottish film ever made by a public poll, its legacy within the UK is immortal. But Trainspotting is a film with universal appeal and continues to find a new audience across the globe with each passing generation who continue to discover it. It just makes the job of the sequel incredibly difficult to live up to as one of the best British, and indeed, Scottish, films ever made.