Review: ‘Trainspotting’

Scabrous, brutal and hip, "Trainspotting" is a "Clockwork Orange" for the '90s. This inventive pic, set among a group of self-destructive no-hopers and junkies in Edinburgh's underbelly, shares only the visual invention and buccaneering spirit of the same team's explosive debut, the black comedy "Shallow Grave."

Scabrous, brutal and hip, “Trainspotting” is a “Clockwork Orange” for the ’90s. This inventive pic version of U.K. author Irvine Welsh’s cult 1993 novel, set among a group of self-destructive no-hopers and junkies in Edinburgh’s underbelly, shares only the visual invention and buccaneering spirit of the same team’s explosive debut, the black comedy “Shallow Grave.” Result looks set to delight a narrow band of young auds turned on by the book and its nonjudgmental tone but alienate more general viewers with its complex mix of in-your-face realism, cinematic fantasy and four-letter dialogue, which sets new standards in screen profanity.

Critical reaction should be positive, however, and U.S. distrib Miramax looks to have a hot-ticket item on its hands if the movie shows up at Cannes, as rumored. In the U.K., the film is set to preem in Edinburgh and Glasgow Feb. 15, with its London opening Feb. 23.

Welsh’s book — more a collection of p.o.v. episodes, written in different styles, than a conventional novel — has already been translated to London’s off-West End stage. For the film, scripter John Hodge has centered the action on Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor), an on-off junkie who acts as a funnel to the surreal world of his four “friends.” Like Alex in Kubrick’s 1971 pic (to which there’s a brief homage), Mark regales the audience with his anti-middle-class values and idiosyncratic philosophy of life, finally achieving a liberation that’s more a temporary escape than a real shift in perception.

A five-minute pre-title sequence introduces the setting (an Edinburgh suburb) and main characters, each of whom gradually swims into focus as the pic unfolds. There’s Begbie (Robert Carlyle), a knife-carrying, “sensory-addicted,” foul-mouthed psycho who “only does people,” not drugs; Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller), a philandering self-obsessive; way-out Spud (Ewen Bremner), who dates Gail (Shirley Henderson); and Tommy, who dates Lizzy (Pauline Lynch) and claims he never takes drugs or tells lies.

Tale then plunges straight into its irreal world with graphic descriptions of a heroin-induced high. Mark decides to kick the habit again, but not before embarking on a megahit that starts with opium suppositories and leads him (in the pic’s most breathtaking mix of black humor and Daliesque fantasy) to dive headfirst into a pan in “the worse toilet in Scotland.”

His sex drive returning as his system clears, Mark hooks up at a club with smart-mouthed looker Diane (Kelly Macdonald), and — in an elaborately comic sequence intercutting Tommy and Spud’s separate bedroom adventures — goes home with her. Next morning, he finds she’s still a schoolgirl living with her parents.

Tone is set by the rough, self-deprecating Scottish humor delivered in heavy accents that will tax North American auds — and even many English — to the limit. (One sequence, in a nightclub, is even jokingly subtitled.) Rarely has a British film so relied on the flavor of dialect for its overall dramatic effect, blending humor and tragedy, realism and fantasy.

After another giant hit and a series of withdrawal fantasies in a room whose wallpaper is covered with trains, Mark moves to London and starts over with a semi-respectable job. One day, however, Begbie turns up, and Mark is eventually lured back north and into a drug deal that could net the group some serious money.

Film’s most striking accomplishment — which will appall moralists as much as it will delight others — is the way it takes a bunch of goal-less losers and a subject (guilt-free drug taking) that’s ripe for downbeat grunge and turns the material into a sustained piece of cinema that’s often wildly funny and, at a character level, extremely involving. Propelled by an almost constant soundtrack of songs, several featuring Iggy Pop, pic manages to sustain interest in a storyline that, until the final reels, largely goes round in circles as its main character kicks and returns to his habit.

Unstated is the fact that the story is set in the Thatcherite ’80s, which heightens Mark’s rejection (and final apparent embrace) of consumerist values. Other than that, however, pic is just as relevant to the ’90s.

Director Danny Boyle, again working with producer Andrew Macdonald, writer Hodge, production designer Kave Quinn, editor Masahiro Hirakubo and lenser Brian Tufano, has come up with a visual style that exactly matches the wild swings in the story. As in “Shallow Grave,” every setup complements the characters or drama and feels thought-through rather than merely used for gratuitous effect. Once again, Boyle squeezes the most visual bang out of a low-bucks budget of $ 2 .6 million.

Performances are terrific at all levels, with McGregor a likable Mark, Bremner (who essayed the Mark role onstage) almost endearing as the loony Spud, and 17-year-old newcomer Macdonald a confident discovery as the sassy Diane. Dominating the film, however, is Carlyle, who, after notable work in “Priest” and “Go Now,” turns in a genuinely terrifying perf as the psychopathic Begbie, a walking time bomb who’s halfway to hell.

Though set in Edinburgh, pic was shot almost entirely in Glasgow.

Trainspotting

British

Production

A Miramax (in U.S.)/Polygram Filmed Entertainment (in U.K.) release of a Channel 4 Films presentation of a Figment Film production, in association with Noel Gay Motion Picture Co. Produced by Andrew Macdonald. Directed by Danny Boyle. Screenplay, John Hodge, based on the novel by Irvine Welsh.

Crew

Camera (color), Brian Tufano; editor, Masahiro Hirakubo; production design, Kave Quinn; art direction, Tracey Gallacher; costume design, Rachael Fleming; sound (Dolby SR Digital), Colin Nicolson, Brian Saunders, Ray Merrin, Mark Taylor; assistant director, David Gilchrist; casting, Gail Stevens, Andy Pryor. Reviewed at Warner West End Theater, London, Jan. 11, 1996. Running time: 94 MIN.

With

Mark Renton - Ewan McGregor Spud - Ewen Bremner Sick Boy - Jonny Lee Miller Tommy - Kevin McKidd Begbie - Robert Carlyle Diane - Kelly Macdonald
With: Peter Mullan, James Cosmo, Eileen Nicholas, Susan Vidler, Pauline Lynch , Shirley Henderson, Stuart McQuarrie, Irvine Welsh, Dale Winton, Keith Allen, Annie Louise Ross, Billy Riddoch, Fiona Bell, Vincent Friel, Hugh Ross, Victor Eadie, Kate Donnelly, Finlay Welsh, Eddie Nestor.
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