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Film: Trainspotting

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Trainspotting poster

Trainspotting is a successful Scottish film from 1996. Mark Renton, the main character, is played by Ewan McGregor. Danny Boyle directed the film. Trainspotting was based on the book by Irvine Welsh with the same name which also became an international best-seller. In this article we explain why this film was a success.

The main story

Mark Renton lives together with his friends in Edinburgh during the Nineties. This is the capital of Scotland. Their life exists mainly of drinking beer, going out, football and robbery. The main theme of the film is scoring and using heroin. It is explained how one becomes addicted and how deep one can fall during an addiction. Rehabilitation is also dealt with, as is the period after detox during which life seems totally meaningless.

The title

Watching the film you may start to wonder about the title. It doesn’t matter how much attention you pay or if you watch the film repeatedly, the mystery will not be revealed. On the Internet one of course finds plenty of people who think they have an answer. According to some the title Trainspotting refers to a hobby which is as meaningless as heroin use. The trains can also be seen on the wallpaper in Renton's children's bedroom. The author Irvine Welsh however claims to have chosen the title because it catchy. According to him there is absolutely no deeper message.

Story

During the whole film a voice-over is heard. The words are spoken by Renton. You see him take a hit in the first scene. Meanwhile you hear Renton as a voice-over enumerating all things a citizen should do. "Choose life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a fucking big television, Choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players, and electrical tin can openers. Choose good health, low cholesterol and dental insurance. Choose fixed-interest mortgage repayments. Choose a starter home. Choose your friends. ......." The enumeration lasts a couple of minutes.

During the enumeration of the many civil obligations the image is switched to a football game. You see three of Renton's friends. Sick boy appears on screen first, he also is an addict. Then you see the friendly but simple Spud who also uses. Finally Tommy Mackenzie comes on screen. In contrast to the others he is clean, although he has a psychopathic streak.

After you have been introduced to the friends Renton enters the picture again. You see how he takes a deep draw of a cigarette, proceeds to fall on the floor and blows out the smoke. At that moment the enumeration stops and the voice-over continues: "But why would I want to do a thing like that? I chose to choose no life. I chose something else. And the reasons? There are no reasons. Who needs reasons when you've got heroin?

Renton makes a very important point. When you take heroin nothing really matters any more. You feel amazing, don't have a care and have absolutely no reason to make something of your life. You live from hit to hit. Only when you quit the problems will return to your life, which is one of the reason quitting is so difficult.

But according to Renton there is one disadvantage to addiction and that is the nagging from your surroundings. The pressure from family and friends makes Renton decide to quit heroin. According to Renton you need the following to kick: "One room which you will not leave; one mattress; tomato soup, ten tins of; mushroom soup, eight tins of, for consumption cold; ice cream, vanilla, one large tub of; Magnesia, milk of, one bottle; paracetamol; mouth wash; vitamins; mineral water; Lucozade; pornography; one bucket for urine, one for faeces, and one for vomitus; one television; and one bottle of Valium." You see how he readies everything.

In the end he still leaves to get one last shot, so he breaks the door down again. However, his dealer only has suppositories with opium. For want of something better, he takes these pills. Renton then inserts them. After that he walks home with the suppository up his ass, while explaining that you get constipated by heroin. As soon as you stop using you get acute diarrhoea. What follows is a hilarious scene of an opium trip on the filthiest toilet in Scotland.

Renton succeeds in kicking, but a life without heroin according to him is tough. He and his friends - who also quit - decide after some time to take a shot again. Soon they are hooked again and we see the world through the eyes of a junkie. Of course it goes from bad to worse and some very sad things occur which are part of the life of a heroin addict. Do you want to know how it ends? You can watch the film on Netflix.

Positive reviews for Trainspotting

  • Derek Malcolm wrote in The Guardian that Trainspotting is an extraordinarily good film because it is as if one has stepped into the youth culture of Edinburgh. The feeling of free expression was, according to him, amazing.
  • Empire wrote that Britain could be proud and Hollywood should be frightened by its success.
  • Kenneth Turan wrote in The Los Angeles Times that the magnetism of actor McGregor had monopolized his attention.
  • Entertainment Weekly gave the film a ten.
  • Desson Howe wrote in The Washington Post that Trainspotting was undoubtedly the most provocative and entertaining pop-culture experience since Pulp Fiction.
  • Time magazine put Trainspotting in third place on their list of best films of 1996.

Negative criticism

Of course there were some negative views. According to some Trainspotting promotes drug use. Producer Andrew Macdonald reacted with the words: "We were resolved to show why people use drugs….it is nice and it is dreadful." The number of negative reviews was quite small.

The success of Trainspotting

Trainspotting was a global hit during the Nineties. The film is also listed as number ten on the list of 'Hundred Best British Films'. This list has been compiled by the British Film Institute. In 2004, the film received the public price for best Scottish film of all time. The film made 12 million pound in Scotland and 72 million dollar internationally.

Trainspotting scene

Why is Trainspotting a success?

Without a doubt the film music was chosen very wisely. The soundtracks of Trainspotting were released on two separate albums which were as successful as the film. The acting performances were first rate. Many actors in Trainspotting would later work in Hollywood. Besides shocking scenes the film also contains a hefty dose of humour.

The moment Spud awakens in the bed of his new girlfriend is absolutely hilarious. His girlfriend is nowhere to be found. To his horror he realizes he has defecated in her bed due to heavy drinking. In the next scene you see him, cleaned up, entering the kitchen with the dirty linen under his arms. His girlfriend still lives at home and her parents sit with her at the table. Father and mother are very understanding towards him. According to them it can happen to the best. This of course makes Spud feel really uncomfortable. His girlfriend ignores him completely.

The mother wants to take the linen, but Spud offers to wash them instead. She wants to know nothing of it and tries to pull the bedding from him but Spud does not let go. When the sheet is suddenly freed it unfolds and the shit flies through the room. It accidentally ends up on the heads of the mother, father and his girlfriend. Funny scenes like these offer a beautiful contrast to the painful events surrounding heroin addiction.

The tale is raw, but realistic. Many know the image of the smack head, who can only think of scoring. In the early eighties Amsterdam for instance had 10.000 heroin addicts. However, if you are addicted to heroin you live in a world that is not accessible to others. Trainspotting takes you into this world and provides a pretty realistic picture.

The affirmation that drugs are mainly bad

Of course it is easier to make a film in which drug use is presented as something which is only bad, instead of a film which suggests that it can also be fun. Admittedly the pleasant intoxication of heroin is well portrayed in Trainspotting. As a result you understand why people would start using heroin, but you are mainly confronted with the horror that accompanies addiction. Drug use in Trainspotting is presented as something that only junkies do and which eventually brings about misery. Thus confirming the prevailing morality.

But if you would make a film in which drugs are used responsible and mainly for fun no American critic would dare giving it a positive review. Take the film Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Without doubt a great film, but in contrast to Trainspotting it does not portrait drugs as something which is only bad. In Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas it is society which is criticized. As a consequence it is cult film which has been reviewed infrequently.

Trainspotting part 2

Twenty years later a second part of Trainspotting is released. All members of the old cast join this time around. For the exact story you will have to pay a visit to the cinema but it is clear the gentlemen are still off their heads. The most important sentence in the trailer is: History repeads hisself.

Watch it yourself

Trainspotting is definitely not a film which has the intention to incite people to use. Indeed, it is more of a warning against the use of heroin. For this reason it is slightly moralistic. But even so, the film features good acting, nice decors and a great soundtrack. Furthermore the Scottish accents are also very entertaining to listen to. If you haven't seen the film it definitely is a must, especially in view of the sequel which has been released in 2017.

Trainspotting (1996)
Director: Danny Boyle
Starring: Ewan McGregor, Ewen Bremner, Jonny Lee Miller, Kevin McKidd, Robert Carlyle
Running time: 93 minutes


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