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(Still) A British Film Classic
on 13 December 2013
I always find it a bit worrying when I return to one of my favourite films some time later (particularly films of a more recent vintage) only to discover that I had rushed to judgement. I'm pleased to say, however, that a recent re-viewing of Danny Boyle's vibrant 1996 Edinburgh-set tale of boredom, criminality and heroin addiction (based on Irvine Welsh's brilliant novel) has (for me) lost none of its original appeal. Not only is Boyle's film a fast-moving, brilliantly edited visual treat (with an intoxicating soundtrack featuring Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, New Order and Underworld that is a perfect fit), but in John Hodge's witty and ironic script and its set of outstanding acting turns (plus some great cameos, courtesy of some of 'Scotland's finest'), it adds up to a film vying for a place in my top 10 British films ever (and certainly would be in my top 5 or 6 of the last 20 years).
Casting aside any 'picture-book' notions held by us English of Edinburgh Castle on tins of Walker's Shortbread, Boyle pitches us immediately into the netherworld of Auld Reekie (albeit most of the film was actually shot in Glasgow), a world of teenage boredom, petty criminals, drug dependency and self-deprecating nationalism as Ewan McGregor's Renton and Ewen Bremner's Spud 'leg it' down Princes Street, shoplifters on the run from the 'polis', all to Iggy's thundering Lust For Life. (In fact, not only does Boyle's masterpiece have one of the greatest opening sequences in cinema, it also has one of the finest conclusion's, this time to Underworld's Born Slippy). As was the case with Welsh's novel (actually a collection of short stories), Boyle's film is essentially a series of vignettes, an expletive-ridden voyage through late-20th century urban decadence, both hilarious and tragic.
Acting-wise, it is difficult to imagine a finer cast (from its time). Not only does McGregor deliver (for me) easily his best screen performance as witty narrator, thinker and addict, but so does Bremner as the naive 'follower', and fellow 'gang' members, Jonny Lee Miler's smooth-talking Sick Boy (his Sean Connery-focused 'cinema narration' is, for me, a highlight) and Robert Carlyle's brutal Begbie ('He's a psycho, but he's a mate, what can you do?'), aren't far behind. That's not all, though - in addition we have Kevin McKidd as 'abstainer' (but ultimately, 'unlucky'), Tommy, Kelly Macdonald as 'underage' Diane, the great Peter Mullan as dealer Swanney and James Cosmo as Renton's father, as well as Shirley Henderson putting in a cameo appearance and even Welsh himself turning up as another dealer, Mikey Forrester.
Boyle's film has, of course, been criticised for glamorising drugs - a sentiment with which I would wholly disagree, simply witness scenes such as Renton's toilet submergence, his hospital admittance, the film's depiction of the impact of AIDS and addiction's effect of 'sidelining childcare'. These are tragic scenes (admittedly shot with great cinematic flair) and alongside scenes such Spud's bedsheets, Renton's revelation of Diane's schoolgirl, Spud's job interview, baby Dawn crawling on the ceiling, Begbie's 'meat and two veg', plus many more, make Boyle's film an unstoppable tour-de-force, pretty much without a second wasted during its surprisingly brief 90 minutes.
Rather like the effect that Welsh's source novel had on the literary world, Boyle's film shook up the (British) cinematic world with its levels of 'controversy' and provocation. It is difficult to think of a (certainly British) film which has had a comparable effect since, although the most obvious earlier comparator is probably Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange (a film with which Trainspotting shares a number of stylistic traits). Boyle's film is (for me) also one of the most evocative films dealing with the (Scottish) urban 'underclass', alongside the likes of Gillies MacKinnon's Small Faces and Richard Jobson's 16 Years Of Alcohol.