I’ve been intending to review this film for some time now; on the recommendation of one of my regular readers (he knows who he is). It’s a film I’d never seen before but knew by reputation, by which I mean that I shouldn’t expect a jolly skip through the tulips, I knew the film was pretty grim, but it turns out I was underestimating it slightly.
But before I get ahead of myself, a little background on this film and its director.
Trainspotting is the second film from acclaimed director Danny Boyle (who would go on to make films like 28 Days Later, Slumdog Millionaire, and the very underrated Sunshine) it chronicles the life of heroin addicts in Edinburgh and is based off the Irvine Welsh novel of the same name, and to say its representation of the characters lives is bleak is like saying that Kanye West is ‘a tad unstable’.
The title ‘Trainspotting’ apparently comes from both heroin addiction and trainspotting being hobbies that people don’t tend to understand; one of which means you lose your social life and all of your friends, and the other one involves taking heroin. I joke, of course, not even I would compare something as life-ruining and soul-destroying as trainspotting to a life of heroin addiction.
Okay, I think I’ve gotten enough mileage out of that joke now, a good reviewer might have even stopped at one poor and predictable joke, but you don’t come to me for good judgement, you come to me to find out whether I’m going to verbally assassinate a film, or lavish it in praise (or, indeed, anywhere in-between) and I will say that Trainspotting is incredibly effective.
There tends to be a school of thought regarding films that depict drug use that by merely featuring drugs, you’re effectively promoting it as a lifestyle, and when it comes to films like this, nothing could be further from the truth; Trainspotting makes a life of addiction look so bad that it should be screened in rehab centres, (on second thought, such a traumatising film might not be a good choice for recovering addicts) its version of life on drugs is so scarring that you’d rather mainline battery acid than heroin after watching it.
This isn’t to say that its bleak tone is a bad thing; on the contrary, it’s perhaps the starkest portrayal of addiction and abuse every put on screen, and its dark, grimy aesthetic does wonders for the atmosphere of the film. It’s darkly tragic, that’s for certain, but also there is an undercurrent of pitch-black humour to counter-balance the unpleasantness of some of the tragedy.
It is most certainly not a film for the faint of heart, and some parts could even qualify it as more of a horror film than a comedy film, the withdrawal scenes, in particular, are enough to turn your stomach and swear you off any vices for life at its brutally honest, yet simultaneously psychedelic visuals.
It managed to get into my head and affect me deeper than any horror film I have ever seen, and in one scene, in particular, left me with an image that will burn into my retinas until the day I die, as well as possibly give me a few sleepless nights, but I don’t mind that; because it’s honest, it’s brave and furthermore: it’s true.
There was no way that any of these characters were going to have a happy ending with the life choices they made (although there is a sequel, so they didn’t exactly have the worst ending either) and if they had then that might have justified some claims of glorifying drug use, but the reason why I don’t believe it does, in any way, is how it portrays the how the characters live, and the consequences of their actions.
Had the film been a funny film about heroin addicts getting stoned and getting up to hijinks, then yes, there would be cause for concern, but it isn’t, it shows the very worst of living that life, and it doesn’t sugarcoat a second of it. It is quite clear from the outset that this film is not glorifying the life of a heroin addict, but merely portraying it in such a realistic way that it acts as a warning to anyone considering it, showing the depths that you will go to if you do develop an addiction.
Danny Boyle is a director that I’ve admired for quite a while and this film is like an itemised list of all the reasons why. He’s daring, unflinching, and never afraid to show what many would shy away from showing to tell his stories, he’s inventive in the way he makes films, how he makes them feel, how they sound, and how they look, this film, in particular, seems to be put together to resemble the disjointed life of an addict in how it flits madly from one place to another, rarely stopping for breath, it’s a 90-minute film on a shoestring budget, and it’s one-hundred times more effective and memorable than most big-budget releases.
Another big reason for its success is its immensely talented cast. Lead by Ewan McGregor, who for someone early on in their career carries such a challenging part with effortless grace and magnetism. It also features several other names who would go on to bigger and better career roles, such as Ewen Bremner, Robert Carlyle and Kelly MacDonald (who made her debut in this film).
Another reason why I loved Trainspotting is because of its unapologetic portrayal of imperfect, fringe characters, in particular, its use of Scottish accents and dialects. A film feels more organic when it is a tale of people and places, and for the most part, we get generic characters from England in most British films, but I find that the cream of the crop comes when different sections of life are portrayed and portrayed honestly, and it doesn’t get much more honest than Trainspotting and its portrayal of life in Edinburgh for addicts. It is essential for the story to work, and it’s a brave move on the filmmakers part to potentially reduce the market of people who may be interested in the film.
Trainspotting is a product of a top-class British filmmaker, allowed to tell the story he wants to tell and in his way; it is definitely not for the weak at heart and can be terrifying on a completely different level to any horror film, because it’s a realistic terror, one that thousands, if not millions go through. That’s why I don’t mind that it may give me a few sleepless nights, it will stick with me for a long time, on the strength of its moral warning, and the images of the consequences of not heeding that warning.
If you or anyone you know is affected by substance abuse issues, these are some numbers to call for confidential help:
Narcotics Anonymous: 0300 999 1212 (UK)
Narcotics Anonymous: +1.818.773.9999 (US)
Information on local services can also be found at this website: https://www.talktofrank.com/get-help/find-support-near-you