Looking back on 1996 subculture classic


Certificate: 18

Running Time: 94 min

Director: Danny Boyle

Cast: Ewan McGregor, Jonny Lee Miller, Ewen Bremner, Robert Carlyle

(Oddyessy Cinema, One-off Screening 17/1/17)


Renton, deeply immersed in the Edinburgh drug scene, tries to clean up and get out, despite the allure of the drugs and influence of friends.

It’s SHITE being Scottish!


When writing about Trainspotting, it’s always easy to get the urge to start it with some sort of  banal “Choose life….” based parody, but i’ll spare you the pain of such a pun. What I can not resist however; is the fact that as i write this the voice in my head is that of Ewan McGregor with all the Ednibronian vocal dower, but still with a sense of youthful energy. With the arrival of the a belated sequel, i thought it was only appropriate to look back on the 1996 sub-culture classic and so did the lovely people at the Odyssey apparently.

Whenever someone asks “What’s Trainspotting about?” you will almost invariably hear someone say “It’s about drug addicts” or sometimes even more vaguely; “Drugs”. This is a gross over simplification. The film deals with vices and themes beyond humble artificial narcotics, such as modern nightlife, sex, urban poverty, and casually beating the shit out of other local bar patrons.

It exposes these subjects in a way that is never glorifying but rarely so deprecating it becomes propagandic. It’s extremely honest in this way. It says “This is how these characters (and how a lot of real people) live” and just that, it does not judge or tell you how to think. The protagonist; Mark Renton, openly admits to being a bad person, but McGregors performance is so charismatic yet down to earth it’s impossible not to latch on to him as he takes us through the life of a young Scottish heroin addict.

The plot is relatively thin, so it really is the characters and the performances that keep the film interesting. A special shout-out must go to Robert Carlyle as Begbie. We’ve all got that one mate, who does things like, you know, talks shite or stays at your house too long or say, starts blooding fights with complete strangers because they lost at a pool game, but you let them off “cause he’s mate, like”.

Begbie somehow manages to be one of the most watchable yet terrifying psychopaths put to screen, the moustache, his confident body language, the immense power he throws at his expletives. Ewen Bremner serves well as the comedic and sympathetic Spud and Jonny Lee Miller also does an excellent as Sick-boy. He’s smarmy, obsessed with James Bond, and sports exquisite trousers in every scene. John Hodge (the screenwriter) and Irvine Welsh (the writer of the original book) did a great job of creating likable and engaging characters with realistic and witty dialogue that really makes you feel part of this gang, without having to partake in their addictive and destructive habits.

Like many indie films of the era such as Pulp Fiction and Clerks, in what Trainspotting has in substance in terms of it’s relatable and cool characters, it manages to equate in style in it’s visuals and soundtrack. Three Iggy Pop tracks! Hell it had two different albums put out, that’s how good it is. The now iconic opening sequence in which our new best mates Renton and Spud are running from security guards accompanied by the dangerous and attention grabbing Lust for life brilliantly sets the tone for the rest of the feature.

Other musical highlights include effortlessly cool songs such as Atomic and Nightclubbing as well some pop and underground tracks which really the coldness and distress of their scenes like Lou Reeds’ Perfect Day as Renton overdoses or Blurs’ Sing which plays at a particularly devastating point, which I won’t spoil in case you haven’t seen it.  

Despite the typically distressing subjects of the film, it has an extremely colourful and often symmetrical aesthetic, inspired by the paintings of Francis Bacon (apparently, anyway. I would have no idea whether that’s actually true or not). The look of the streets, the primary colours of the clothing not to mention the contradicting dirty beauty of the night club scenes create a world that is provocative and tempting. Even the way people walk across the street or get off a train is cool in this movie. Danny Boyle has been a stylistic director throughout his career, but this is very likely his peak as a visual artist.



Ultimately the energetic music and striking visuals help expose what Trainspotting really is, a rough, sometimes fantastical, often brutally realistic and harrowing but at its heart an adventurous and strangely upbeat and positive look at urban life, even with all the other ugly organs that come with that. It’s one of the best films ever made this side of the Atlantic and despite capturing it’s time period so well, doesn’t feel aged and I’m willing to bet won’t in another twenty years. Trainspotting is one those movies, where you love the characters, the world and the style so much, the idea of returning, even after over two decades, the most cynical movie-goer could not be excited to return and this showing was a great to get excited to go back with T2: Trainspotting coming out net week I can’t wait to get my fix.


Review by Mike McCourt
Review by Mike McCourt

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