Review: Trainspotting (1996)


Every director has a call to arms film, a picture that is made with the passion of a thousand suns and wholly represents the filmmaker’s most personal and striking work; even if it is not necessarily their most accomplished or is an objectively sound cinematic endeavour. Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting is demonstrably indicative of this auteurist paradigm. It is a film in which every frame is filled with an energetic verve and an all-encompassing youthful apathy that is sadistically funny in its reach and commendably accessible in its emotional resonance.

The mid-nineties picture is about four young friends who must overcome heroin addiction and mundanity in the midst of being economically downtrodden in Scotland’s capital city- Edinburgh. On an initial viewing, the film is seemingly an unflinching and ghastly anti-drugs advocation. However, on subsequent re-watchings, the film feels like a universal story in which central character Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor) is attempting to escape his hapless working class existence.

McGregor’s performance is a staggering masterclass in subtlety and restraint. Some of his most compelling moments are ones in which he is somewhat physically static and evidently subdued in his reactions to other characters. For example, there is a scene in the second act when a friend of his expresses a curiosity in heroin. McGregor simultaneously illustrates the out of body experience of being high on the drug while also providing a quiet sense of judgement in his friend’s sudden interest of the substance. At the same time, there are small moments when McGregor imbues Renton with an animalistic fervency such as when he is at the regular drug den and asks “What is on the menu tonight.” While the young actor is delivering this line, he is in a physical stance that matches an unnervingly hungry frog awaiting a sizable portion of insects.

The picture marks the flourishing of Danny Boyle’s trademark directorial flourish which is a visceral surrealism. The stretch of film that embodies this quality is an extended sequence depicting Renton’s maddening breakdown in the midst of an earnest attempt to detox. The scene has various people in Renton’s life coming back to haunt him as he lies in bed. Boyle’s manipulation of the space- (chiefly manifested in the sheer long distance between the bed and the front of the room) combined with the use of Underworld’s Dark and Long in the background make for a harrowing scene that vividly illustrates the immense hardship of giving up illegal drugs.

Moments such as this inherently damage the film and result in it merely being perceived as an abhorrent illustration of the ill effects of drugs. This cardinal problem makes the proceedings one note, sadly to the detriment of the universality that comes from a strange third act excursion. While the last fifteen minutes feel like a purposeful evocation of Boyle’s consistently better film Shallow Grave, they do not harmonise with the rest of the film. The result makes one realise that the social and economic trappings of the four main characters do not factor into the narrative and only have cursory significance in the grand scheme of the picture.

About Sartaj Govind Singh

Notes from a distant observer: “Sartaj is a very eccentric fellow with a penchant for hats. He likes watching films and writes about them in great analytical detail. He has an MA degree in Philosophy and has been known to wear Mickey Mouse ears on his birthday.”
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