Trainspotting: 20 Years On

On 23 February 1996 Trainspotting exploded onto our cinema screens, and arguably, they were never quite the same again.

I first saw Trainspotting on my 13th birthday (late night Channel 4 FTW!). I became obsessed with this film, I had the poster, the soundtrack, I watched it at least once a week for about a year, I pre-ordered the The Definitive Edition on DVD a good three years before I should have done (The Internet: helping youngster view inappropriate content since 1995) . A few years later I even bought the special edition VHS with a lighter and metal Rizzla holder.

However, due to growing older and discovering new interests It’s been a few years since I last watched it. So, as this year marks the film’s 20th birthday I thought I might revisit this classic British tale of drugs, sex, thievery and betrayal.

trainspotting feet

Right from the opening scene the film still packs a punch. From the moment Iggy Pop starts declaring his Lust for Life I was hooked in all over again, as we see our band of plucky drug addicts running down the street, laughing and full of life, we know we’re in for a ride full of thrills and spills. With the main character, Renton’s (played brilliantly by a young Ewan Mcgregor) voice over enthusiastically telling us all “Choose life… But why would I want to do a thing like that?”, showing how he decided to reject the conventions of a normal life. No wonder 13 year old me who always struggled to fit in loved this film, it’s about people that don’t fit in in society, and whats more, they actively reject it.

At the time of release the film received criticism from the press for ‘glamorizing’ the use of heroin and drugs. I really feel that nothing could be farther from the truth. Trainspotting is brutal in the realities of what can happen when you’re addicted to heroin. The filmmakers were bold enough to not talk down to it’s audience, to show them both sides of the story and let us make up our own minds about the subject.

Trainspotting needle

Yes, it shows the positives in a world that has mostly been shown as only negative, Renton tells us about the amazing high, a woman tells us after shooting up that it beats ‘any fucking cock in the world’. The set design is bright and colourful at times, the editing is fast paced and full of energy, the performances are three dimensional and well rounded. This positive light, sometimes venturing into the slightly surreal is what really sets Trainspotting apart from other films depiction of heroin addiction. Even now it feels like a breath of fresh air on this subject. Something showing drug addiction as something other than a desperate, low state of affairs was essential to it’s success.

On the other side of the same coin they were also bold enough to show  us some of the more disturbing aspects of drug addition.We see a woman lose her baby in the smack den, we see Renton going through hell during one of the most iconic scenes, where his parents lock him in his childhood bedroom to quit smack cold turkey. We feel that we are there with him, going through all the stages and all the hallucinations. There’s a character who started off choosing life, then choose heroin when his life starts going downhill (thanks, in large part to Renton stealing his home made sex tape), he gets AIDS from dirty needles and ends up dying alone, in the dirt, with no one to notice him missing. These might be something that other films with this much joviality in it might shy away from. Trainspotting went there through, it dared to show us a spectrum of the life of an addict. They’re not just poor miserable little people taking drugs to make their lives bearable. There’s more to it than that, and Trainspotting really opened the door on being able to show all aspects of smack and not just the doom and despair that is often portrayed in films on the subject. Perhaps it even helped to open the doors on discussions about drugs and their effects in the wider community. 

trainspotting diane

This is before we can even touch on some of the other themes in the film, such as poverty, underage sex, relationships, and betrayal.

When watching the film I was shocked at how fresh and innovative it still felt. A lot of that has to do with the director Danny Boyle, he wanted it to be funny and for it to have moments of surrealism, this is not just a doom and gloom story, this is an adventure. Trainspotting was only his second feature film, and it’s down to him where the film gets it’s great energy, and manages to draw great performances from his actors. The scene where Renton takes an overdose and sinks into the carpet is still one of the best, like the scene where his parents lock him in his room it works to place us in his place, we all sink into the ground with him, his lowest point this far (literally and figuratively). We are always with the characters, they are not just there to be pitied or vilified, you identify with them, you go with them through the good and the bad.

trainspotting toilet

The use of Lou Reed’s Perfect Day during this scene is also a great example of the film’s great used of music and sound. The soundtrack helps to set the time period (approx mid/late 80s’ mid 90s according to Danny Boyle in one of the special features on the DVD), and the use of the opening sequence again later in the film, but with different music totally changes how you feel about it, it not longer feels full of exuberance and freedom, it becomes a dead end, they get arrested, Spud ends up going to prison and Renton fails at trying to wean himself away from heroin onto methadone.  The music really helps to make the film, it helps to set the changing of time without it being said explicitly by the cast. 

Revisiting an old favourite after a few years can sometimes leave you disappointed, after all as humans we are prone to change our tastes and wants from our art. Trainspotting did not disappoint. It was just as fresh and vibrant as it was on that first viewing 15 years ago. It might not have blown my mind as it did once, but it certainly captivated me for an hour and a half. Even twenty years on this is as relevant and as exciting as it ever was.


(technically this isn’t really a review, but I’m going to give it some stars anyway, just ’cause I want to)




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