Possibly the most hyped British movie ever, Trainspotting is also one of the best British movies of recent years. From the team who made the unusual thriller Shallow Grave, and based on Irving Welsh’s cult novel, the film follows a group of Edinburgh skag-heads, and in particular Renton (Ewan McGregor), who wants to kick the habit. After a couple of false starts, he moves to London and is doing okay until two of his mates turn up, one of them on the run following an armed robbery. They drag him back down, until he gets involved in a big heroin sale which, if they get caught, would mean a long jail sentence.
The film has been criticised for glamorising drugs, social irresponsibility, et cetera; I find this is a puzzling judgement. It is certainly not as grim as anti-drugs films like Christiane F, but it has hard to see how anyone could conclude from it that drugs (or at least heroin) are great. What it does is explain why people take heroin. Christiane F and its kind show how terrible heroin is, but it leave it somewhat mysterious why anyone should take it, except for stupidity. Trainspotting contrasts the partial joys of being ‘out of it’ with the grinding misery and pointlessness of ‘normal’ life. It shows how people take drugs because life is mindnumbingly dull without them, and because the experience itself can be pleasurable.
But it doesn’t stop there. One character dies of AIDS -— in utter squalor; another loses her baby due to neglect. The life of the addict is hardly portrayed as one of happiness and hope. When Renton gets his lucky break — the chance of really getting clean — it’s because of a windfall, and even then his alternative is just as mindnumbingly dull; the difference is that now he can afford a slightly better mindnumbingly dull life.
The film is endlessly innovative, from surreal sequences (such as Renton’s celebrated disappearance into the bowl of the worst toilet in Scotland, or his cold turkey hallucinations) to its use of dialogue and its camera angles. It is visually a million miles from the frequent ‘British movie’ syndrome of looking like an episode of EastEnders done on the cheap. It is also very funny.
It cost £1.5 million to make, a tiny fraction of what is spent on most Hollywood blockbusters (Waterworld cost $180 million). An original, compelling movie, showing how vibrant British cinema can be.