FROM the moment Ewan McGregor’s drug-addicted Renton came dashing down the Edinburgh streets, pursued by police and voicing his ironic mantra of “Choose life” – a shopping list oconformity that he finally debunks by asking “But why would I want to do a thing like that?”– it felt like a done deal, the cinema-going equivalent of abject surrender. Just seconds into the film we knew that we would indeed choose – we’d choose Renton, Spud, Sick Boy and Begbie, however disreputable they were, we’d choose Tommy and Diane, choose Underworld, choose Trainspotting.
Danny Boyle’s bravura and triumphant adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s seminal novel is 20 years old this year. But it seems only yesterday that it blew the cobwebs from the British film industry, a zeitgeist phenomenon that exposed the social squalor and despair left by Thatcherism, with the breezy, cheeky confidence of Cool Britannia.
Depite screening ‘out of competition’ in Cannes in 1996, it was the stand-out film of that year’s festival. Suddenly the poster was everywhere. Bums on seats accompanied critical kudos, making it an international box office success. Since then, it’s routinely featured in best of British film lists, while the public voted it the best Scottish film of all time. Neither Trainspotting itself, nor its reputation have dimmed.
However erroneous the claims that it glamourised drugs, the film’s refusal to judge its unapologetic anti-heroes may make such mainstream success surprising. In fact, it’s Boyle’s extraordinarily well-judged amalgam of reality and entertainment that explains that appeal. Trainspotting can be grim, but it’s ridiculously good fun.
Boyle showed that a British film could beat Hollywood at its own game. Here was a dynamic, stylish, sexy, populist film for a cut-price two million pounds, featuring one dazzling sequence after another – the street pursuit, “the worst toilet in Scotland”, Spud’s job interview, the horrific death of Allison’s baby, Renton’s overdose and cold turkey. And each was accompanied by a terrifically apposite track, by the likes of Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, New Order, Pulp and Blur, with Underworld creating the throbbing pulse of the film.
At the same time, Boyle and his collaborators refused to sacrifice the difficult, challenging truth of their source material. It would have been a shock for many to hear characters extol the virtues of a heroin high, but that is one side of addiction; the deaths of the baby and Tommy remind us of the other. Robert Carlyle, who played Begbie, has said that he regards Trainspotting as one of the best anti-drug films ever made. It’s a nice touch that his own character frowns upon drugs, but is a psychopath and the only unequivocally unappealing person in the film.
Boyle thinks of the novel as “part of the Scottish psyche” and had no intention of messing with that either. Of the major cast members, only Jonny Lee Miller, as Sick Boy, didn’t hail from Scotland, and there is no attempt to water down accents or dilute the culture. The characters discuss their national identity frequently. Eighteen years before the independence referendum, Renton offered what might have been an invaluable line to the Yes Scotland campaign. “Some people hate the English. I don’t. They’re just wankers. We on the other hand are colonised by wankers.”
From a practical perspective, the project benefited from the close-knit team that was already in place after Boyle’s first film, the thriller Shallow Grave: not just the leading triumvirate of Boyle, writer John Hodge and producer Andrew Macdonald, but also its cinematographer, editor and production designer. Trainspotting’s narrative panache (Hodge’s adaptation is superb), colourful design and kinetic energy can all be traced back to Shallow Grave.
On the acting front, Boyle brought over McGregor from Shallow Grave, and in small roles Peter Mullan and Keith Allen. Ewen Bremner had been playing Renton in the stage version of Trainspotting but agreed to take on Spud, making the character’s incoherent haplessness one of the funniest aspects of the film; Carlyle confirmed Boyle’s belief that wee psychos are the most terrifying; in her first film, as the schoolgirl with far more smarts than Renton, Kelly Macdonald was a revelation.
When Trainspotting opened, the veteran critic Derek Malcolm spoke of it being acted “with a freedom of expression that’s often astonishing”. That inch-perfect casting and performance provide the breeze and authenticity that keep the film as fresh as a daisy.
2016 wasn’t a bad year for British films. We had Ken Loach’s Carla’s Song, Mike Leigh’s Secrets & Lies, Gillies Mackinnon’s Small Faces, Emma (also with McGregor) and the Oscar-winning The English Patient. But all of these fit familiar patterns – of social realism, costume drama, romantic epic. The thing about Trainspotting is that we simply hadn’t seen a film quite like it, certainly not here.
The film kick-started some fine careers. McGregor has become one of Hollywood’s most likeable and dependable stars, adding another screen icon to his CV in the form of Star Wars’ Obi Wan Kenobi; Carlyle and Mullan are revered as formidable character actors; Macdonald has shone in America, notably in the Coen brothers’ No Country For Old Men and Scorsese’s television gangster epic Boardwalk Empire. Miller and Kevin McKidd, who played Tommy, are starring in long-running US television shows. Boyle himself has become a creative powerhouse, whether winning an Oscar for Slumdog Millionaire or directing the London Olympics.
As the Edinburgh Film Festival celebrated Trainspotting’s 20th anniversary with a special screening, it was worth remembering that Carlyle is one of the festival patrons, and Mullan starred in its opening film, Tommy’s Honour; these are people who have become part of the fabric of Scottish cinema. And outside, on the streets of Edinburgh, Boyle, McGregor, Carlyle and Miller were shooting T2: Trainspotting 2. They have waited 20 years to give themselves and the characters some real time and life experience, to make a reprise worthwhile. Such integrity is what made Trainspotting endure. So there’s every reason to choose the sequel, in 2017.
This article first appeared in The Sunday Herald