It’s a push to think of any British film with the seismic impact and cultural legacy as Trainspotting. The electric adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s novel, even 25 years later, retains a startling immediacy and shock value that has ensured its place in cinema history. It blends the violent spiralling of Goodfellas with the pop culture, blood-soaked razzmatazz of Pulp Fiction, but it’s told with the pale and gritty realism that British cinema has made its own. The debate as to whether the film glamourises drugs, that consumed Trainspotting upon its release, is all but dead in the water. As it should be, because there is nothing glamorous about this story. Danny Boyle’s film is an alarming depiction of toxic friendship and addiction that also captures a disenchantment with society’s apparently endless quest forward, a relevancy not lost despite what a different place the world is now compared to 1996.
Self-destructive male characters are hardly a cinematic rarity. From Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver to David Fincher’s Mank, emotional turbulence and at times a lack of moral direction are seen as by-products of whatever supposedly righteous pursuits these toxic men are invested in. Trainspotting on the other hand depicts substance abuse and the resulting delinquency not as a means to an end, but a characteristic of people disenfranchised with wider society’s increasing gentrification. As the main characters, in their own ways, mature and grow up, they come to realise that the modern way of life does not speak to their values – in fact, it actively rejects them. So why would they choose it? Ewan McGregor’s Renton’s now legendary monologue at the start of the film lays bare the emptiness of such modernist, materialist promises in a way that seems to speak for a forgotten class of people.
Trainspotting’s social commentary captures brutal historical truths about Scotland. Heroin, far from appearing like a recreational remedy, is seen as a destructive poison that costs people money, relationships and their health. One of the many sobering truths that Trainspotting catches is how the stigma and paranoia surrounding AIDS, which in the 1980s had been used to justify homophobia, broadened to also incorporate drug users. Edinburgh, the film’s setting, became the AIDS capital of Europe during the mid-90’s and a new frontline in the ‘war on drugs’ (incidentally, Renton explains in the sequel that ‘choose life’ comes from an anti-drugs slogan from the 1980s). The brutal manner in which death, illness and addiction is captured, complete with an unflinching honesty, stands out as one of the most striking and memorable elements of the film.
Boyle’s style however doesn’t lend itself to the sobering social dramas of Ken Loach or the incendiary cultural critique of Spike Lee. In another world, Trainspotting could have been taken in either or both of these directions, and its legacy would look very different. Boyle allowed pop culture to saturate its way into the story, championing underground music and celebrating those artists who define the lives of the main characters. Such was the revelatory nature of the soundtrack, arguably surpassing anything done before or since by Quentin Tarantino (to whom Boyle was compared upon the film’s release), that it remains as popular and iconic now as it was in 1996. It remains a stellar lesson on how music can inject a story with staggering energy and divergent tones, scoring any story’s most iconic moments.
Trainspotting has also become memorable for its diabolical sense of humour. The main characters are all granted moments of comic relief, particularly Spud, played by Ewen Bremmer. Many of the more comedic moments wouldn’t feel out of place in something like Jackass and Trainspotting went on to define Scottish humour for decades. The likes of Chewin’ the Fat and Still Game still contain traces of the unique, distinctively Scottish brand of humour that Trainspotting adopted, blended with the rich source of inspiration provided by Scottish entertainment down the years. Not only that, but it placed Scotland almost in opposition to the ‘Cool Britannia’ wave of the late 1990s. As colourful celebrations of national pride and entertainment gripped the nation, Trainspotting remained – and indeed remains – a disturbing expose of the underprivileged many that such waves of privileged celebration leave behind. Albeit one that would not be complete without fits of raucous laughter.
Trainspotting’s style is irresistible, hallucinatory imagery used to blur lines of reality and fiction in a way that characterises almost all of Boyle’s films. Sequences such as Renton disappearing down the toilet bowl or sinking into the floor feel so unreal, yet captures the psychological malfunction brought on by drugs in a more evocative way than anything before or since. More enduring still is the terrifying depiction of his come down, which turns Renton into a screaming, quivering wreck.
Far from celebrating drug use and the people that participate in it, Trainspotting came to define the worst of drugs for a generation. Yet in a cryptic way it also came to define the best of Scotland. It’s humour and geographical references have seen it become a national cult classic on a scale unlike any other film, the seriousness of the film overshadowed by the jokes when viewed by an inebriated, rowdy local audience. Far from losing the soul of the film, it has helped to ensure Trainspotting’s continued popularity. Boyle’s film has become the stuff of cult legend. Everything from Robert Carlyle’s unforgettable performance to the film’s most sickening, twisted moments stick like glue in the mind after all this time. It has become a hallmark of Scottish-made cinema and stands out even now as one of the greatest British films to ever grace cinemas.