Trainspotting adapted from Irvine Welsh’s novel and made by the Shallow Grave team of writer John Hedge, producer Andrew Macdonald, and director Danny Boyle, giving us characters and moments that are unforgettable. Ewan McGregor plays Renton, an on-and-off heroin addict who can’t decide whether to clean up or regress in the company of his loser friends in working-class Edinburgh, and later in London. The film was produced in 1996.
Trainspotting in reality refers to a session of dark linear mark or track that is left in the veins after shooting heroin. The first thing is that heroin users mainline along their arms and inject up and down on the main vein. “Station to station,” they call it. For addicts, everything narrows down to that one goal of getting drugs. “Trainspotters” are like that, obsessively taking down the numbers of trains.
The five main actors in this film are all males and with a life threatening drug habit. Trainspotting can be classified under four different types of film genre including: drama, comedy, crime and drug culture. “Trainspotting” is classified as drama since it is a serious story due to the drug habit and several scenes that showed the real lives of junkies, and graphic images of injecting heroin. On the other hand it can be classified as comedy especially when Spud goes to an interview high on speed and other funny moments that are there to lighten up the seriousness of the film. This can be classified as black humour. Surely Trainspotting can also be out under the crime and drug culture genre due to the story in itself and the characters This film gives us a very vivid and real picture of a heroin addict’s every day routine.’Choose Life…’ the film’s most famous quote means a lot. Those portrayed in Trainspotting are the ones that need to understand choosing life; they are the ones that this phrase was penned for and who are these people living a life less ordinary? They are addicts in Scotland, living lives that are synchronized around getting what they need. For three of them, heroin is their mode of addiction, for another passivity, and for the last aggression. They are a mad quintet, pissing away lives that could maybe amount to something.
In the beginning as we are introduced to our humble narrator Renton (McGregor). We can see that he is on a road to nowhere, stealing CDs from a shop in hopes of making a little cash to pay for the next hit. His home away from home is a drug dealer’s apartment ( Mother Superior) where he is issued a regular platter of needle, spoon, lighter, and heroin beside his best mates Sick Boy (Miller) and Spud (Bremner). They are as troublesome as he is, though Spud is helpless in his addiction while Sick Boy is just there to compare metaphorical sizes.
Movies about drug addiction are certainly nothing new, but this film makes everything look different, almost like it is the first film to deal with the subject. Trainspotting is brave and frequently hilarious; it’s dark, smart and stubborn. It’s more than one of the best ‘drug movies’ ever made; it’s arguably the finest film to come out of the UK
Ewan McGregor plays the main character; Mark Renton. He introduces the film Trainspotting with an extremely energetic scene, the former scene accompanied by Iggy Pop’s ‘Lust for Life’, along with Renton’s sarcastic narration, which rejects our weak, mechanical existence in favour of the joys of heroin. Iggy pop is Renton’s hero. He even has a poster of him in his room. When he goes clubbing, we notice that his heroin habit has been going on for a long time as he doesn’t recognize any of the new songs at the club. Diane makes him notice this, and Renton starts to realize that heroin has taken so much out of his life.
“People associate it with misery, desperation and death, which is not to be ignored. But what they forget is the pleasure of it, otherwise we wouldn’t do it” He is undoubtedly appalled by society and the materialistic satisfactions it offers. He later compares heroin: ‘imagine the best orgasm you ever had and multiply it by a thousand and you’re not even there’ However, after a few minutes into the film he decides to quit heroin. The viewers may conclude that it is time to move on in life, yet he could not live life without heroin as we see through out the film his various unsuccessful trials at quitting his habit
Renton has a serious drug habit, and due to his unemployment must sustain is by shoplifting and petty theft. When he was on methadone, he had his ‘last hit’ and this resulted in an overdose. This simply shows an effort to avoid being compliant. In fact, it is this determined attitude which possibly explains heroin’s over Renton. He states, “We’d inject Vitamin C if they made it illegal”
Even though he manages to kicked his heroin addiction and starts a new life in London, his old circle of friends are not easy to get rid of and Renton ends up getting involved in a drug deal, and sells 4 kilos of heroin with his ‘so-called’ friends. Towards the end of the film, he betrays the others by escaping with the money. This shows the viewers that he decided to ‘choose life’, be ‘just like us’ which is a doubtful aim; the qualities of which the film questions the whole time
Renton is dreamy, sharp, troubled, and calm, seemingly all at the same time, and you never know where you are with him, as he never knows where he is with himself. It’s an understated portrayal of an essentially rootless character – yet a magnetic one.
Johnny Lee Miller plays the part of Sick Boy who is portrayed as a handsome guy who has the habit of talking nonsense and bombarding his mates with trivia about Sean Connery. He is a womanizing James Bond wannabe, who is highly intelligent. Sick Boy is the one who seems least affected by his heroin habit. In fact, when Renton tries to quit heroin, Sick boy does the same just to spite him In the film Trainspotting Sick boy is the one who trivializes heroin and seems to have no problems with his addiction contrary to the rest of the crew.
“The film only touches on the question of how far his persona is genuine or just social camouflage” . Sick Boy’s behaviour in the final parts of the film show how the death of his baby has affected him and made him more crime prone. He starts to deal in drugs, pimping and becomes an all round con. Renton states that when Sick Boy’s child passed away, something inside Sickboy must have died and never came back .
Later in the film, Renton escapes to London to start a new life, while Sick Boy and the rest of his friends remain in the Scottish capital. When he visits Renton unexpectedly, he immediately sells Renton’s television without consent and he also offers to sell Renton’s passport. Sickboy is so fixated with his new criminal career that he never even bothers to think about Renton’s feelings. “He becomes obsessed with developing useful contacts for that elusive ‘big deal’, and sticks a finger in any pie on offer” He becomes a manipulative pimp and drug-pusher at every opportunity and wouldn’t hesitate about taking advantage and manipulating anyone for the purpose of self-advancement. All through out this ordeal Sick boy remains as vain as always.
Tommy, played by Kevin McKidd, contrasts vividly with the other main characters. He is portrayed as athletic, finding pleasure walking in the countryside, weight lifting and watching football rather than making use of drugs. As the film progresses, there is a drastic change in Tommy, turning him into the worst of the bunch with a “rapid and fatal” descent .
Tommy’s relationship with his girlfriend Lizzie does not seem to be progressing well. The strain of finding their homemade porn film missing because Renton “borrowed” is the final straw for Lizzie and breaks off the relationship. When his efforts to patch up his relationship fail, Tommy falls in a depression and resorts to drugs. Sadly enough (black comedy), it is Lizzie, the very person whom Tommy loves that causes his death. With the increased use of heroin, Tommy contacts HIV. His initially clean and tidy apartment becomes filthy. His final tentative to regain Lizzie sees him getting her a kitten, which she refuses. Tommy is found dead due to an infection from the kitten’s faeces . This has a social connotation as HIV and AIDS due to heroin abuse was on the increase and booming in 1996.
Clarke considers this character’s story helps to create an ethical perspective in this film, giving the audience something to think about. Anyone can fall victim to drug abuse, even youths considered as ‘good’. Clark states that Tommy is portrayed as free from drugs on film whereas makes use of amphetamines in Irvine Welsh’s novel. This could be credited to the fact that certain individuals would prefer watching the film rather than reading the book thus the message has to be harsher to get across. The same can be said of Tommy’s behind-the-scene drug use. As the film proceeds, Tommy’s health aggravates thus shocking the audience. In the end, without Lizzie, Tommy “chose not to choose life” but heroin and death .
Begbie considers himself better than any of the rest. This is seen clearly when he lectures his friends after Renton narrowly escapes imprisonment , and trys to appear mature in front of Renton’s parents and when he claims that never would he “poison” himself with chemicals. Alcohol can also be considered as a harmful chemical to the body, but Begbie doesn’t see it as such. Begbie takes a commanding attitude when with his friends, for example in the final pub fight scene when he orders Renton to bring him a cigarette or during the hallucination scenes as well as during his stay with Renton in England.
Spud, the “amiable, childlike loser” as described by Clarke, is played by Ewen Bremner . Clarke considers Spud’s life as brimming with wrong choices, including his choice of drugs which is considered unsuitable to his weak character . During his six-week relationship with Gail, they never had sex. On the night she wanted to have sex with him, Spud was too drunk to do anything. On awaking in Gail’s bed the following morning, he finds the sheets soiled. Spud’s bowel contents end up smeared on Gail and her parents whilst eating breakfast .
Clarke compares other scenes from the film. Spud gets incarcerated for shoplifting while Renton emerges practically scot-free. Similarly, Diane sees Spud lying intoxicated under the pavement during the letter scene whilst the others appear lucid . Also, despite various threats, Spud is the only member of the group to be injured by Begbie. Nonetheless, it is inevitable for everyone to love Spud. The audience sympathise with him. Renton wishes he ended in prison instead of his friend. In the end, he leaves money only for Spud because he pities him.
Kelly Macdonald starring as Diane is young but wise beyond her actual years. This is shown especially when she deals with men. At first, Renton sees her at a nightclub rejecting the advances of a man by drinking both drinks and leaving, and secondly when Renton approaches her outside the club and responds to his weak chat with a coldly cruel speech that leaves him completely dejected. However, when she leaves the taxi door open for Renton to go in, it becomes clear that the negative response may have been purely a tool to create sexual power over him.
Later in the film, after a night of passion with Renton in her bedroom, Renton and the audience are amused and disturbed to see Diane changing from her silver dress into her school uniform. The audience understands the position Renton has found himself in. He ought to escape from this situation or else face the consequences since she is underage. However, Diane has once again the power over Renton in this situation because if she tells the police, Renton will face prison. She knows the law and blackmails him to meet her again . Diane also seems to be more knowledgeable about modern culture. In fact she emphasizes that shooting heroin, listening to Iggy Pop and the fact that Renton and the main protagonists are still in Edinburgh are outdated, “Times are changing, music is changing, even drugs are changing” .
Establishing sexual power over men is also seen in other women in the film. In a nutshell, Trainspotting’s male characters are ready to drop their usual secure façade and jeopardize embarrassment to fulfill their sexuality. The women in Trainspotting seem to be more than happy to coerce. For instance Spud’s girlfriend refused to sleep with Spud during their six-week relationship but she later admitted to Lizzy that she wants to sleep with Spud yet she loves watching him suffer. Lizzy is also seen as ridiculing and sexually controlling her men. She would not deny herself from having sex with Tommy since it is her only pleasure she gets from him. However, later in the film, when Thomas could not find the highly intimate private video, Lizzy was ashamed. She was so furious with him that she left him .
Alison, played by Susan Vidler, is a typical drug-craving mother. She is self-centred, completely neglecting her daughter. When the baby is found dead in her cot, Renton narrates that they did not know who father her baby. This furthers the belief that she is quite immature and lacking in morals, having sexual contact with all male members of the group. On discovering her daughter’s death, one of her initial reactions is to take heroin.
Mother superior is the group’s heroin provider. Although he is seen administering the drug to the friends, he himself is never viewed making use of it. Mother superior cannot be considered completely as friend to them because he ultimately wants money for the drugs he provides. However, when Renton overdoses, Mother superior calls for a taxi and provides money for it. This can be interpreted as a friendly gesture but also as helping Renton to avoid getting in trouble. Mother superior knows the different characters of the group. This can indicate that they have all be using drugs for quite a while, thus frequenting Mother superior’s place often. During the film, the characters are seen shoplifting to sustain their drug habit. The need to steal might have been initiated by Mother superior demanding hard cash.
The bond Renton has with his friends is just the common goal of shooting the next hit. When he is not on drugs he has to face reality, which is, maintaining relationships, meeting girls and everyday responsibilities. The film portrays what seems to be united group. However, there is a fear of Begbie because of his violence and alcoholic tendencies as well as him being the older of the lot. Sickboy, Renton, Spud and later on in the film Tommy all have a heroin addiction, thus their preferred method to solve problems is taking a hit. Begbie solves his by drinking and fighting. The group share stolen money and tend to shoplift in groups. When they go to the clubs, they party together. Still, in the end Renton calls the rest of the group “so-called friends”.
The relationship between Renton and Spud can be thought of the best within the characters. As mentioned before, Renton cannot help liking Spud. Renton is seen giving his friend hints before Spud’s job interview. Even though it is considered wrong, Renton offers Spud some speed to put him at easy. When both of them are caught shoplifting, Renton wishes he went to prison instead of Spud. In the same scene, he admits feeling lonely, although being surrounded with family and friends. At the end of the film, Renton felt sorry for Spud because he never harmed anyone or said a bad word about his friends. Thus, he left money only to Spud. This relationship is further supported by the fact that Renton asks Spud if they would take the money and go. Renton could have more easily grabbed the bag and left before Spud would have reacted in any way.
Renton has a good relationship with Tommy as well, thinking of him as one of his best friends. Tommy also considers Renton a friend by confiding with him the problems he had with Lizzie. Renton felt sorry for Tommy when he found his HIV positive friend living in a horrible, filthy apartment. He tried to make amends by giving money to Tommy to pay the rent. This relationship is somewhat ironic because Tommy’s downfall is caused by Renton when he stole Tommy and Lizzy’s video. From the beginning, Renton and Sickboy’s relationship does not seem strong. Renton is slightly jealous of Sickboy. This impression is born by the fact that Sickboy can easily overcome heroin just because Renton is trying to quit. Sickboy does not seem to have any problems dating girls in the disco scene whereas Renton did not like the females around him, except for Diane. Towards the end of the film, Renton states that Sickboy would betray him off as well if he thought about it first. Sickboy himself admits the fact.
Spud and Tommy are seen alone talking about sex a highly private issue since they both have a girlfriend. Their girlfriends also seem to be in confidence with each other. They are comfortable sharing problems: Spud – no sex in a six-week relationship; Tommy – forgetting Lizzy’s birthday. He had a ticket for Iggy Pop for the same night. When Tommy dies, Spud sings him a song. This little act shows how much Spud cared for Tommy. Begbie’s relationship with Renton is slightly contradictory. Begbie trusts Renton enough to confide with him when he went out with a transsexual without knowing at first. However, Begbie threatens Renton on several occasions, his aggressive nature taking over all emotions. Renton pleases Begbie mainly because he fears him. Renton tries not to oppose Begbie because he is “a psycho” At the end of the film Renton states that he did not care that he betrayed Begbie.
The relationship portrayed between Mother superior and Renton cannot be termed as a friendship because ultimately Mother Superior’s business consists of selling drugs to Renton and the rest of the group. Still their relationship runs deeper than the normal dealer-user relationship. Mother superior could have easily dumped Renton somewhere instead of calling a taxi to take him to hospital. However, some may doubt the gesture as generated due to friendship. The audience could believe that paying for the taxi is a little price to pay when compared to all the trouble Mother superior could get if found with a dead body.
Trainspotting could be described as conveying an anti-drugs message, which is portrayed through “character studies rather than a patronizing preach” This film presents its audience with more than one view of drug Throughout the film, the youth characters are frequently seen cooking heroin and injecting the latter into their bodies (, however it also portrays the pain, agony, melancholy and unhappiness that are derived from this drug addiction . One could say that this film is a warning about the fears and perils of drug addiction, mainly heroin addiction .
Trainspotting’s anti-drug message mainly lies within the film’s ability to illustrate and tackle the reason as to why young people are attracted to drugs. Furthermore the film’s power and success into presenting the audience with the negative results, damage and consequences that derive from this type of addiction convey this anti-drugs message more clearly. The film portrays these negative results and damages constantly throughout the film. The film and its characters enter a world of neglect, dieing babies, AIDS, anxiety, depression, boredom and hopelessness. Moreover the other anti-drugs message that derives from this film “goes beyond causes and consequences in explaining that serious drug abuse is itself beyond cause and consequences: Renton asks, “Who needs reasons when you’ve got heroin?” .
Trainspotting deals with the mid 80’s heroin subculture of Edinburgh, “when Pakistani smack had glutted the UK market, becoming, for thousands of ordinary people mired in unemployment, a cheaper means to oblivion than alcohol”. It analysis the likelihood of youth subcultures to surpass “their social class contect and form(ing) a class of their own” In this film even “nonravers” are portrayed as drug users, both in a literal sense (“state-sanctioned chemicals like alcohol or tranquilizers”) and in a metaphorical sense (“TV, videos, computer games, the adrenaline rush of football violence”) .
Hebdige (1979:100) maintains that “style is an intentional communication.” Barthes (N.D.) as cited in Hebdige (1979:100), differentiates between “subcultural” and “normal styles.” The subcultural style collects those insistent mixtures of clothing, music, jargon and so on, and nearly exhibits a corresponding connection to “the more conventional formulae (normal suits, ties, twin sets, etc.)”. The clothes that individuals wear are selected within the constraint of preference, taste, cost etc. Such choices embrace a wide range of messages, which are communicated through the delicately assorted distinctions of a number of “interlocking sets” such as status, self-image and class. Subcultural styles distinguish themselves from normal styles as “they are fabricated and they display their own codes,” and this is constantly portrayed throughout the film (Hebdige, 1979:100-101). Through the clothes worn by the characters in the films, they are portraying the message that they do not belong to the “normal culture” but they belong to a class or subculture of their own; “I speak through my clothes” (Eco, 1973 as cited in Hebdige, 1979:100).
Trainspotting can be described as dark humor, but junkies’ world over priced the film heartily. It’s a film that is mainly about people that do not want to belong. Trainspotting is not the first film about heroin, but the first one that is a ‘slap in our faces are both the grim realities of life at the tip of a needle and a freewheeling, pop-music-fueled glorification of the addicts’ smack-happy existence’ .
The Trainspotting soundtrack was wildly successful in the international charts after the release of the film itself, in the 1990’s. The music score is mainly composed of popular music. Sometimes the film takes the semblance of a music video, with conversation kept at a bare minimum. The scene and the soundtrack are complete and enough for the viewer to understand. This is used several times and for different purposes .
In the first ten minutes of the film, we are transfixed; watching as the anti hero Renton and Spud race through the streets and a voice over begins:”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 openers. Choose good health, low cholesterol and dental insurance. . . .”
This litany goes on and then we get a view of Renton lying in heroin stupor and the voice over ends with:
“But why would I want to do a thing like that? I chose not to choose life: I chose something else. And the reasons? There are no reasons. Who needs reasons when you’ve got heroin?”
Accompanying this powerful scene is Iggy Pop’s ‘Lust for Life’. ‘Lust for Life’, in which the lyrics, are markedly subordinated to Renton’s voice-over after the thumping opening few bars, so much so that the only lyrical fragments that can be heard are the opening line ‘Here comes Johnny Yen again…’ and the choral refrain (‘I gotta lust for life’). Incidentally, Iggy Pop is renowned for his past heroin abuse and is mentioned quite a lot in the film. The two eventually come to signify each other – Mark Renton is the central character of the film, and Iggy Pop is the most prominent artist on the soundtrack album. Iggy Pop’s music also lends a sense of rebellion to the film. We can notice Iggy Pop’s poster in one of the scenes too
Renton’s knowledge of new music is limited and this is seen when they go clubbing. Renton is ill at ease; he hasn’t been out for a long time and is not in touch with the current music scene. This is where we have the inclusion of the songs Born Slippy and ‘For what you dream of’. All this shows how Renton has been so wrapped up into his heroin habit that he is totally put of touch. The only song Renton recognizes is a song originally by Blondie called “Atomic’ (an 80’s song). The shift in emphasis is evident in Trainspotting itself as, although the musical character of the score gradually shifts from the proto-punk of Iggy Pop through to the more recent waves of dance music
Some of the music was recorded purposely for the film. For example Pulp’s “Mile End”, which accompanies Mark Renton’s moving into a London flat. The lyrics of the song describe the state of the flat he moves into:
“It smelt as if someone had died
The living room was full of flies.
The kitchen sink was blocked
The bathroom sink not there at all…”
Another song created by the group Leftfield for the film is ironically called ‘The final Hit’. Throughout the film Renton takes many of his so called final hits. It is mainly an instrumental track, with harmonic chords which contrast with a dark, almost overpowering rhythm track. The contrast between harmony and rhythm may represent Mark Renton’s mixed feelings at this point in the film – he desperately wants to give up heroin, but the feeling it gives him is too pleasurable.
As a whole the music used in the film is full of irony. For example when Renton is hallucinating that he is disappearing down the ‘dirtiest toilet in Scotland’, we hear a mellow piece of ambient music by Brian Eno, aptly called Deep Blue Day. The film takes a surreal twist here and we enter a world of soft sounds and images as Renton swims in a blue ocean. This all contrasts harshly with the reality of Renton digging into a filthy toilet to find his heroin suppositories, while he vomits uncontrollably
All of the songs in the soundtrack of Trainspotting have become significant to people who saw it and associate the songs to the film; to heroin. At this time, the term heroin chic was having great impact in the world. Heroin chic was a trend in the 90’s that characterized the “thin, sickly look of junkies. Blank expression, waxy complexion, dark circles under the eyes, sunken cheeks, excessive thinness, greasy hair” were seen on runway models showing the ‘heroin chic’ look and promoted in popular magazine and fashion circles as ‘chic’. This fragile, thin, and drug-addicted look was well-liked in the fashion world. In fact, in 1997 it was the basis of the advertising campaign of Calvin Klein. The heroin chic fashion provided debate and anti-drug groups protested. “Fashion designers, models such as Kate Moss and James King, and movies such as Trainspotting were blamed for glamorizing the heroin chic look and lifestyle”
Former US President Bill Clinton condemned the heroin chic look and the ‘heroin chic’ fashion photography for sending a message that using the drug is ‘glamorous’ and ‘sexy’. He said, “You do not need to glamorize addiction to sell clothes.” As he saw it, the glorification of heroin “is not creative. It is destructive. It is not beautiful. It is ugly. And this is not about art. It is about life and death. And glorifying death is not good for any society” Not surprisingly much of the mainstream press and the dailies were horrified by the apparent glorification of heroin use in the film Trainspotting. Junkies were presented as righteous heroes choosing freedom over the tyranny of consumer society. Suddenly all values were inverted as viewers and readers were invited to identify and empathise with low-lifes who would think nothing of spending all day watching telly and shooting heroin. Trainspotting helped a new morbid fascination with the drug heroin by portraying powerful role models in the movie. For years heroin has been very popular in the lives of young celebrities for example River Phoenix (who died of an overdose in 1992).
Trainspotting was a great hit and could be seen of more than advertisement than a film. Even years after the film was released, the film about heroin addiction is was of the best marketed films that portrays cultural images of the heroin subcultures. Trainspotting has received a cult following. The film addresses both the problems of heroin addiction from a user point of view to an anti-drug point of view. Trainspotting manages to shock us, terrify and disgust us one moment and make us laugh the next. Trainspotting does not really have a plot but simply follow the daily lives of this group of junkies
Drugs are the main focus of this film. In the 1990’s a new wave of music and drugs started to emerge. Heroin was seen as old-fashioned (Iggy Pop). With the film Trainspotting heroin was given the spotlight. Characters like Sick Boy and Renton became idols for rebellious teenagers who wanted to experiment in drugs, felt disillusioned, unattached from society. Trainspotting became the bible to this new generation of heroin junkies. They had a soundtrack and idols to emulate. On the other hand one could have viewed the film as it is; an ironic and cynical peep hole into the lives of a group of heroin addicts. The tragedy of the film is apparent to the viewer, but than it is up to the individual to interpret it.
By Sue Micallef
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