It is time to talk about Trainspotting. I’ve been putting this off as the film not only overshadowed Scottish cinema for a while, it also overshadowed the source novel, and, let’s face it, most of you will already be familiar with it. Trainspotting became such an all encompassing phenomenon; the novel, the film, the soundtrack and the advertising campaign, that it didn’t just change Scottish culture, it sold it to the world.
In reality the book and the film are two very different beasts. Irvine Welsh’s novel is really a collection of interlinked short stories which director Danny Boyle had to somehow collate into a coherent narrative. This meant losing some of Welsh’s central characters, such as Second Prize, Nina and Davie, or relegating them to cameos, as happens with Alison and Mother Superior (so called due to length of his habit. A great line). The movement from page to screen has other problems, not least the fact that the female characters are as poorly served in the film as they are in the novel where they are one-dimensional at best. Boyle, or rather John Hodge who wrote the screenplay, cannot be blamed for this. Welsh has a real problem writing female characters, something I believe is more than simply bad writing. Boyle tried to make Kelly Macdonald’s Diane a central character in the film, but although she appears on the poster (a situation that occurred only because Kevin McKidd was ill on the day of shooting, trivia fans), and has one great piece of dialogue, this is a boy’s own tale. Boyle also removed a lot of the amoral behaviour that is to be found in the book. Ewan MacGregor’s Renton is hardly a saint, but he does not plumb the depths Welsh’s Renton sinks to and the film gives him the hint of conscience which is missing from the original. Perhaps understandably, Welsh’s characters are more vivid and interesting, and you can read my thoughts on the novel here indelible-ink-trainspotting, but Boyle makes a great job of bringing the lives of this gang of reprobates successfully to screen.
A major reason for this is the casting. The film boosted the already successful careers of MacGregor and Robert Carlyle immeasurably, and launched those of Ewan Bremner, Kelly Macdonald, Johnny Lee Miller and Kevin McKidd. All of these, with the exception of MacDonald, had made movies before, but Trainspotting thrust them into the limelight, thanks in no small part to that iconic poster which ended up on many a wall. The selling of the film was equally important in its success. The soundtrack was flawlessly compiled, bringing together icons such as Iggy Pop, Lou Reed and New Order with some of the rising stars of Britpop; Pulp, Sleeper, Blur and Elastica amongst them. And then there was the trailer, which breathlessly sold the film in two minutes:
And so to the two ‘Ewans’. In the stage play of Trainspotting Ewan Bremner was the original Renton, and was certainly closer to Welsh’s characterisation. But it is unsurprising that they chose MacGregor to front the film as he was Boyle’s lead of choice after the success of Shallow Grave. MacGregor only really works for me as an actor when he is playing a morally dubious, smug, yet often charming, arsehole. As evidence I would put forward the aforementioned Shallow Grave and Young Adam. It is this quality that makes him perfect for Renton as he clearly believes he is superior to all his accomplices, something he goes on to prove. If the intent was to suggest that we are all essentially selfish then MacGregor manages to convey this effortlessly. His casting also meant that we got to see Bremner render a heartbreaking yet comic performance as Spud. Spud is the heart of the movie, the one who genuinely believes that friendship is the most important thing in the world. Here he is deliberately sabotaging his own job interview:
The greatest performance comes from Robert Carlyle as the psychotic Franco ‘the beggar’ Begbie, a turn which is up there with De Niro’s Travis Bickle, Malcolm MacDowell’s Alex Burgess, and Denis Hopper’s Frank Booth as a truly unsettling screen presence. If you’ve never met a character like Begbie then be thankful, because they are out there. The guys who say you’re in their seat when every other one is empty, or claim that you’re looking at them the wrong way when the reality is that, for them, there is no right way. The guys whose idea of masculinity is so screwed up that they feel the need to prove themselves constantly through violence and aggression. Real charmers. But if Begbie just stood on his own he would be a one-dimensional monster. What makes him really interesting, and believable, is his relationship with the other characters. They are terrified of him, yet see him as a mate. This is not simply a case of keeping your enemies close, it taps into a skewed concept of loyalty and the belief that bonds forged in early years should never be broken no matter what. It is this ‘code’ that Renton breaks, and it is this betrayal that is, at least to those he leaves behind, a bigger crime than any theft.
As I was looking for clips to accompany this piece I came across this one of deleted scenes. The picture and vocals are a little out of synch but they’re interesting none the less:
Trainspotting is not the greatest film of all time, but it is approaching greatness, and is a damn entertaining movie. Like many of Boyle’s other films such as Shallow Grave, the underrated Millions, Sunshine and Slumdog Millionaire, the style often takes away from the substance. Or, in the case of The Beach, the lack of any substance. But, there can be little doubt about the impact that Trainspotting had, and continues to have. Many people, from Scotland and elsewhere, decided to study Scottish film and literature due to the impact of Trainspotting, and from that have fallen in love with a wider range of writers, poets, film-makers and artists. It became our cultural Vicodin; a gateway to to the hard stuff.