Why Trainspotting is the greatest film of all time
To celebrate the recent news that in 2016 Danny Boyle plans to release Porno, the sequel to the majestic and influential Trainspotting, I decided to post a special article dedicated entirely to my favourite film of all time.
As long as cinema exists, the great debate will rage on: What is the greatest film of all time? Of course, there is no definitive answer, as it strictly opinion. Roger Ebert, for example, believes it to be the traditional favourite Citizen Kane, while Mark Kermode will argue that The Exorcist is the greatest. I, on the other hand, will defend for, most likely, the rest of my life that Trainspotting is the greatest film of all time, and here are just a few of the reasons why:
Director Danny Boyle, on only his second feature film, was alive with a youthful energy, and every frenetic camera movement showed that this was a man at the height of his creative powers. Energised by his well received hit debut Shallow Grave, and the fact that he had a much larger budget than on his debut (in which, to buy more film stock, they were forced to sell off props throughout filming), Boyle creates an original directorial vision, in which he has full control and style in every single shot.
Ewan McGregor as Mark Renton takes a fairly unpleasant, often backstabbing and conniving man and turns him into your loveable, witty best friend. His dialogue is sharp; he’s believable, with the right edge of unpleasantness to make him feel like an average human. McGregor, after doubts from producers, shaved his head and lost incredible amounts of weight, making him physically perfect for the part. It’s a mostly subtle performance, with only one large scene of real drama (going cold turkey), yet he turns it into one of the great British performances of the 90’s.
Robert Carlyle as Francis Begbie is an unrivalled display of psychotic, utterly terrifying, humanistic acting. Carlyle, after a discussion with Irvine Welsh about their interpretations of the character, played Begbie as a closet homosexual, and this shows, especially in the scene in which Begbie kisses a transsexual; his silent shame and anger convey to us a man frustrated in his own skin. Through his answering any sign of conflict with violence, to his very loose friendships which he will betray in an instant, through to his moralisation of drugs (Begbie lectures his friends about “putting shite in their bodies”, despite the fact he is rarely seen without a pint in hand), Begbie is the true villain of the film, and Carlyle is impeccable.
Johnny Lee Miller
Johnny Lee Miller as Sick Boy is brilliantly horrible. As a man so terrible that he goes cold turkey at the same time as Renton just to prove he can do it more easily, Lee Miller takes great relish in playing a man who is almost completely irredeemable. However, we are thrown a curveball when it’s revealed that Sick Boy is also the father of Dawn, and we are even shown he has humility, when he reacts badly to her death. Like every other character, there is more than meets the eye to Sick Boy.
Spud is a completely loveable loser, played tragically and quietly by Ewan Bremner, always drawing the short straw, such as being sent to prison for being more honest and less devious than Renton. Though he gets a somewhat happy ending, he also has a prison sentence, a descent into drug oblivion, a knife wound, and a betrayal by his only true friend. Out of every character in Trainspotting, Spud is the most human, and, out of his friends, by far the nicest.
Tommy is played as stern, sensible and far better than the rest of his friends by Kevin McKidd and has the most tragic story arc, going from being physically fit and not touching any drugs to a junkie with HIV, who dies alone in an unkempt flat because of a cat he didn’t want. Famously, McKidd wasn’t on the promotional posters for Trainspotting, due to being on holiday, but this is definitely not to say he is any less important than the rest of the cast.
Kelly Macdonald, in her film debut, is utterly stunning. It’s a tough role, being both wisecracking and mature yet also portraying a 14 year old who tricked an older man into sex, but Macdonald makes Diane one of the few honest, nice characters in the film, and she is utterly charming. Macdonald really shows off her acting skills which would follow her on to bigger roles, such as Gosford Park and the Coen Brother’s Oscar-winning No Country for Old Men.
The killer soundtrack, a medium director Danny Boyle specialises in, fits perfectly as a companion to the film. Born Slippy, a 90’s dance hit by Underworld, works not only as simply a great song, but as a further narrative of the scene. The synth chords to punctuate Renton’s victory, the pounding drum beat as Begbie discovers he has been cheated; the song synchs up right alongside the scene.
The novel is set in the 80’s, and while this is never said in the film (and the film, by its very nature as a defining 90’s film, feels very much like the narrative is set in its time of making), the soundtrack subtly hints at this, such as reviving the career of Iggy Pop by usingh is classic ‘Lust for Life’, and the numerous disco hits and updated covers throughout the club scenes. Boyle, in every film of his, strives to use a mix of classics and newer indie bands, and he was never more successful than in Trainspotting.
The film is one of the most quotable of the all time. Fans of the film can quote nearly every character, from Renton’s anti-Scotland diatribe, featuring such gems as “Most people hate the English. I don’t. They’re just wankers. We, on the other hand, are colonised by wankers!”
In one of the most chaotically scary scenes in the film, Begbie casually tosses a pint glass off a balcony, badly injuring a young woman, before walking down to the stunned and silenced bar crowd and shouting the immortal “This lass got glassed, and no cunt leaves ‘til we find out what cunt did it!” It’s a line as funny as it is chilling.
Of course, the most famous lines of the film also open it, as Renton, running down the streets being chased by shop security guards, begins his lengthy speech about what makes a normal life; “Choose life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose family” After running through many specific examples, such as “good health, low cholesterol and dental insurance” and “watching mind numbing, spirit crushing games shows”, he is knocked out during a football game, and as he falls, we cut to him falling down after a heroin injection. As he hits the ground, we hear the sardonic “But why would I want to do a thing like that?”
The novel Trainspotting, by Irvine Welsh, was considered un-filmable, due to its non-linear storytelling, and numerous characters and short stories. Not only did Boyle and screenwriter John Hodge make a truly brilliant adaptation, which retained key themes and scenes of the book but also made it much more straightforward and only used a handful of the main characters, but they also made a film both commercial and accessible, yet still indie in its roots.
The Academy Awards
Though the film is often unglamorous and a very British film, this didn’t hold it back from being Oscar nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay, a recognition it deserved. Even though Trainspotting didn’t win (losing as it did to Billy Bob Thornton’s Sling Blade), it would be hard to deny that the film’s popularity was not boosted by the nomination.
Comedy and drama
Trainspotting is a film that walks an incredibly thin tightrope between comedy and drama. The fact it manages to balance big laughs – the Sean Connery voices while shooting, Spud’s accident – with utterly harrowing drama – Tommy’s funeral, the cot death of baby Dawn – is incredible, and only the very best films manage to balance it as nicely as Trainspotting.
The drug scenes, and many there are, are realistic, and portrayed as unpleasant from the start. Though the film is stylish and often “cool”, this doesn’t ever mean drugs are glorified. After all, we see lives ruined and ended due to heroin in the film.
The American ‘counterpart’
When first marketed by Miramax, Trainspotting was promoted as “the British Pulp Fiction”. While Pulp Fiction is the defining film of the 90’s in the USA, and up there as one of the greatest films of all time, Trainspotting manages a slight edge over it. Whereas Quentin Tarantino is famous for wearing his influences on his sleeves, the filmic references of Trainspotting are much more subtle. For instance, the static camera shots and nightclub scenes are an homage to the excellent Kubrick film A Clockwork Orange. Perhaps, underlining everything, the reason I favour Trainspotting to Pulp fiction is simply the British humour and sensibilities. Being a Brit, I find Trainspotting more relatable and funny than Pulp Fiction, even though many would disagree.
The opening sequence
The opening sequence is flawless. Not only is it fast and frenetic, with stylish freeze frames and inventive camera work; the latter scenes involving the friends playing football perfectly foreshadows each character. We already see from the moment Renton hits the car and laughs that he is reckless. When Sick Boy makes foul play and then argues with the referee, we learn that he is sneaky and devious. Begbie makes foul play and laughs, showing he gets his entertainment from violent acts. Tommy shows his competitive side, taking on numerous players, and Spud misses, showing quite simply that he is the underdog and the loser of the group.
The ‘cold turkey’ scene
The scene in which Renton goes cold turkey from heroin is bleak, terrifying and bizarrely, darkly humorous in its cameo from British television start Dale Winton, presenting a game show about heroin use, with the contestants being Renton’s parents. The moment in which Allison, one of the various heroin abusers’ dead baby crawls along his bedroom ceiling and drops down on him may be a strong contender for the scariest sequence of the 90’s in British cinema.
So, you’ve reached the end of this exhausting, definitive list of the reasons I think Trainspotting is the greatest film of all time, and my own personal favourite. Though there are many reasons to suggest Porno could make for a disappointing sequel, I have complete faith in Danny Boyle, and I will see you in three years for my review. Thanks for reading!
By Harry J. Ford
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