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Trainspotting (1996)

“Choose Life. Choose A Job. Choose A Starter Home. Choose Dental Insurance, Leisure Wear and Matching Luggage. Choose Your Future. But Why Would Anyone Want To Do A Thing Like That?”

Trainspotting started out as a cult Scottish novel, was adapted to a West End play, and became a wildly successful ensemble film of lovely character-driven performances.

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Johnny Lee Miller is the absolute perfect Sick Boy and Ewan McGregor is brilliant as Renton. Ewen Bremner is hilarious as Spud and Robert Carlyle is an amazing Begbie.

Even novelist Irvine Welsh makes a cameo appearance as drug dealer, Mother Superior who, according to Renton, is “called that on account of the length of his habit”.

The film opens with a voice-over narration from Renton while he and geeky, awkward Spud dash down a street pursued by security guards who’ve caught them shoplifting (pictured above right). It’s an underbelly variation on the opening of A Hard Day’s Night (1964).

Renton’s speech begins to move to the dual rhythms of his hurtle along the pavement and Iggy Pop‘s Lust For Life.  A minute later we’re in a flat watching Sick Boy – suave and bleached blond – prepare a shot for Allison (Susan Vidler).

We see the life of the heroin user: the terrible, the shocking and the banal. Sometimes all concurrently.

Boyle really lets loose in a couple of expressionist sequences, including one where Renton dives headfirst into ‘the filthiest toilet in Scotland’ (pictured below) to retrieve two opium suppositories and emerges beneath the ocean’s surface where the evacuated drugs gleam like gems on the seafloor.

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The scene is almost unbearable, but what an example of what it means to be in thrall to drugs.

In the most notorious scene, we see the corpse of Allison’s baby daughter, dead from neglect, a casualty of everyone else’s self-involvement.

And there’s a mind-boggling section where Renton’s parents lock him in his bedroom to go cold turkey and he imagines the trains on his childhood wallpaper chugging past him, his parents on a game show answering questions about HIV infection, and the dead baby girl crawling along the ceiling, pausing to stare at him accusingly.

The sequence makes you feel like you’re suffering along with Renton.

The reputation of Trainspotting was widespread. During the 1996 American Presidential campaign, Republican candidate Bob Dole criticised Trainspotting for glorifying heroin abuse. In a later clarification, he admitted he hadn’t seen it.

The film’s unsentimental, non-judgmental view of heroin addiction is summed up by lead character Mark Renton in the opening sequence.

“I chose not to choose life. I chose somethin’ else. And the reasons? There are no reasons. Who needs reasons when you’ve got heroin?”

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The escalation of this plays out in a practical joke that Renton plays on his pal Tommy (Kevin McKidd), a poor, simple, trusting non-user. It winds up costing Tommy his girlfriend. Desolate, Tommy offers to pay Renton to shoot him up, and Renton – needing money to score – agrees, getting Tommy hooked.

Trainspotting never descends into moralism or judgement and it treats the addicts like human beings. They laugh, cry, suffer and try to make sense of their lives.

From director Danny Boyle to actors Ewan McGregor, Robert Carlyle and Kelly Macdonald, everyone involved went on to bigger successes but none has been as impressive since.

David Bowie, heavily referenced in the book, deemed the script “cool” and was a key figure in getting the music of his friends Lou Reed and Iggy Pop on the film’s excellent, best-selling soundtrack alongside Blur, Pulp, Heaven 17, New Order, and Underworld. Two decades later, the film and its music still pack a mighty hit.

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Mark Renton
Ewan McGregor 
Sick Boy 

Johnny Lee Miller 
Spud 

Ewen Bremner 
Begbie

Robert Carlyle 
Mother Superior

Irvine Welsh
Tommy
Kevin McKidd

Director
Danny Boyle