Miramax // 1996 // 94 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Dan Mancini (Retired) // July 19th, 2004
"Choose life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a fucking big television. Choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players, and electrical tin openers.
"Choose good health, low cholesterol, and dental insurance. Choose fixed-interest mortgage repayments. Choose a starter home. Choose your friends.
"Choose leisure wear and matching luggage. Choose a three-piece suite on hire purchase in a range of fucking fabrics. Choose DIY and wondering who you are on a Sunday morning. Choose sitting on that couch watching mind-numbing spirit-crushing game shows, stuffing fucking junk food into your mouth. Choose rotting away at the end of it all, pissing your last in a miserable home, nothing more than an embarrassment to the selfish, fucked-up brats that you've spawned to replace yourselves. Choose your future. Choose life.
"But why would I want to do a thing like that?
"I chose not to choose life: I chose something else. And the reasons? There are no reasons. Who needs reasons when you've got heroin?" -- Mark Renton
In America, Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting has become a Finnegan's Wake for the slacker crowd. It's a sprawling, carefully studied work whose phonetic representation of an Edinburgh brogue makes it a challenging read for Yanks. Readers willing to put forth the effort discover an enthralling seriocomic examination of the dark and often desperate lives of the working classes in urban Britain, a novel in the tradition of Alan Sillitoe's Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1958) or Lawrence Till's Kes (1968). Welsh's characters are as vibrant as his prose, and both sweep one along in a tide of dark humor, tragedy, and closely observed details of popular culture of the early 1990s.
The film adaptation of Trainspotting by director Danny Boyle, screenwriter John Hodge, and producer Andrew Macdonald -- the team behind 1994's Shallow Grave -- captures the spirit of the novel even if its scope and emphasis are radically altered.
Edinburgh mates Renton (Ewan McGregor, Moulin Rouge), Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller, Afterglow), and Spud (Ewen Bremner, Julien Donkey-Boy) are on-again, off-again heroin addicts, their lives a series of loosely-connected comic vignettes involving the extremes of behavior necessary to maintaining a habit. Soon enough, however, events veer into tragedy as the boys fall victim to their own karma. When they go in with their psycho pal Begbie (Robert Carlyle, The Full Monty) on a big-time drug deal that could quadruple a £4,000 investment, Renton sees a way to get a financial leg up and sever all ties with his junkie friends, the very thing he needs to kick skag once and for all.
In British slang, the term trainspotting refers to the peculiar hobby of collecting the numbers of locomotives by recording them in little notebooks. In a broader context, it describes the obsessive and fetishistic behavior of any subculture of nerds -- the collecting of meaningless trivia, records, stamps, comic books...DVDs. The term has also come to mean the search for a viable vein for drug injection. So, Trainspotting's title has a double meaning. The connection to intravenous drug use is obvious, but the lads' identity-defining obsessions with the detailed information required to navigate the heroin culture -- how to cook it, shoot it, snort it, kick it; how to resume a habit after it's been kicked; and how to scam Social Security, avoid straight work, and shoplift in order to fund the resumed habit -- as well as their PhD level knowledge of ephemera like Sean Connery, Iggy Pop, and Scottish football clubs is the stuff of nerds, plain and simple. Their world is detailed and insular, which is what makes it so appealing because aren't all families and cliques of close friendship insular collections of shared experience? Even if we don't relate specifically to the subculture of Scottish heroin addicts, we connect universally with the characters' existence in a complex inner world of their own shared design because we all live in such worlds.
Because of its freedom of form and the plasticity of language, the novel is a better vehicle than film for capturing such texture and detail. Indeed, Welsh's Trainspotting is a bigger work than Boyle's, packed more densely with vignettes, anecdotes, and fringe conceptual details impossible to capture visually. Its point of view whipsaws from character to character as it intimately reveals each of the lads to its readers. In making his film, Boyle didn't even try such an approach, instead choosing to filter the tale through Renton, pushing the other characters into secondary roles. The end result doesn't feel like a hollow imitation or a compromise of the source material, but a smooth and appropriate translation into an entirely different artistic medium. The film Trainspotting is at once its own beast and a clever distillation of the essence of Welsh's book.
The major structural difference between book and film is that the novel unfolds in four parts with rich interplay between comedy and tragedy, while Boyle and company streamlined the film into a two-part structure. The dark comedy is frontloaded into the first half of the film, giving us the opportunity to warm to the characters and their world, and the tragedy descends on us mostly in the second half. At the center of the film -- the turning point -- is the death of a baby, the illegitimate daughter of Sick Boy and a junkie named Allison. The moment when Boyle hits us with the shot of Baby Dawn's blue corpse is akin to Kid Sampson's violent death by propeller in Joseph Heller's Catch-22: the comedy doesn't evaporate outright, but its tone is radically altered, darkened, because we're forced to acknowledge how dire the stakes are in the characters' lives, and that their behavior has consequences. After Allison's screams jar them into the realization that the infant is gone forever, nothing goes right for the boys. Spud is arrested for shoplifting and sent to the pen for six months; a disillusioned Sick Boy turns to pushing and pimping; their previously clean friend, Tommy, takes to skag because of a break-up with his girlfriend and pays a terrible price; Begbie's violent demeanor finally catches up with him, forcing him to disappear in order to avoid arrest; and Renton overdoses and is locked in his childhood bedroom by his parents, forced to kick cold turkey in a nightmare of hallucinations involving dead babies, betrayed friends, game shows, and HIV.
Throughout the supplemental material on the DVD, Boyle, Hodge, and Macdonald talk frequently about how they tried to avoid moralizing, but the two-part behavior/consequence structure of the film makes moralizing unavoidable. In fact, the subject of drug use itself essentially creates a glamorizing/moralizing dialectic -- both may be artistic no-no's, but avoiding falling into either is nearly impossible. Trainspotting does glamorize in its first half, but all of that is undone by the second half, in which the film reveals itself as a morality play, though a subtle one. After viewing the picture, it would be difficult not to take away the message that heavy drug use is a potentially life-destroying activity, but that obvious truth isn't hammered home with the After School Special formulas found in, say, Darren Aronofsky's Requiem for a Dream, a film in which the worst possible consequences land with mathematical precision on each of the drug-abusing characters. Trainspotting is a nuanced morality play that acknowledges the obvious truth of drugs' destructive potential without losing sight of a truth pointed out to us by Renton at the film's beginning: "People think it's all about misery and desperation and death and all that shite, which is not to be ignored," he says, "but what they forget is the pleasure of it. Otherwise we wouldn't do it."
Miramax's Collector's Series reissue of Trainspotting is an improvement on their earlier bare-bones release in every way. Not only is the 1.85:1 transfer anamorphically enhanced, it exhibits none of the color fade and ample speckles of dirt that marred the transfer on the earlier disc. The vast improvement in color is especially significant as the production design by Kave Quinn (also a veteran of Shallow Grave) mixes gritty naturalism with splashes of bold primary colors. The original Trainspotting DVD was early in Miramax's experiment in the format and shows it; this new release is in keeping with the high video standards we've all come to expect from the studio.
On the audio front, this new release offers a remixed Dolby 5.1 track that is slightly more vibrant than its predecessor's, as well as a new DTS 5.1 mix that's a skosh brighter than the Dolby. Neither audio option offers directional panning or LFE, but dialogue is crystal clear and music sounds terrific throughout. A Dolby 5.1 French dub is also available. There aren't proper subtitles, but English closed-captions are offered (a major convenience for those who have trouble making out the characters' Scottish brogues).
Trainspotting: Collector's Series is a two-disc set with a load of supplemental material. Disc One preserves the extras from Criterion's old laserdisc release of the film, starting with a solid commentary track that includes contributions by Boyle, Hodge, Macdonald, and McGregor. The track is culled from a series of interviews conducted in London in 1996, and is emceed, so to speak, by McGregor, who introduces the parties before they speak. The piece is loaded with information and observations about the production from screenwriting to editing; Welsh's book; and even a stage adaptation, unrelated to the film, that starred Ewen Bremner in the Renton role.
Disc One also houses 10 deleted scenes with optional commentary by the same group who participated in the feature commentary. The scenes themselves are short and presented in a non-anamorphic widescreen that is quite a bit rougher than the feature. None of the scenes would have improved the film, though many are amusing.
First up on Disc Two's offering of extras is a batch of featurettes under the label Trainspotting Retrospective. Most of this material is interview footage, arranged into two sections: "Look of the Film" and "Sound of the Film." Each of these sections is divided into "Then" and "Now" subsections. The former contains brief interviews with Boyle, Hodge, Macdonald, and Kave Quinn dating from the film's production in 1995; and the latter contains interviews with the same group, shot in 2003. A separate "Interviews" section has a 1995 interview with author Irvine Welsh (shot during his Trainspotting cameo as suppository dealer Mikey Forrester), and additional 2003 interview footage of Boyle, Hodge, and Macdonald. "Behind the Needle" is a multi-angle featurette that allows one to view the shooting of a Renton injection scene in which a prosthetic arm was utilized. Three camera angles, plus a view of Boyle, circa 2003, watching the footage and commenting are available. The Retrospective extras are rounded out by a 30-second piece in which McGregor discusses the Carlton Athletic Boys, an obsessive group of footballers/former addicts who acted as consultants on the show and appear as the football team against whom Renton, Sick Boy, Spud, and Tommy play at film's beginning.
Cannes Interviews are brief segments that catch the opinions of actor Martin Landau (Ed Wood), Oasis guitarist Noel Gallagher, and Blur frontman Damon Albarn after the film's non-competition exhibition at the festival. "Cannes Snapshot" is a montage of the film's splash at the festival that captures additional comments by various celebrities, including actress Toni Collette (About a Boy), Dave Stewart from Eurythmics, and Miramax poobah Harvey Weinstein.
Some of the film's marketing materials are preserved on the disc, including teaser and theatrical trailers, as well as a nine-minute electronic press kit called The Making of Trainspotting. Extremely brief cast and crew biographies are also offered, as well as a photo gallery that plays as a five-minute featurette.
Honestly, the Disc Two extras look more impressive on paper than they actually are (especially in light of Disc One's excellent commentary). Also, the lack of a Play All option makes watching the wealth of brief interview segments a tedious affair. Still, everything on Disc Two was worth preserving, and Trainspotting fanatics should find enjoyment in it all.
If you already own Miramax's original Trainspotting DVD, the improved video and audio makes this Collector's Series edition worth the price of an upgrade. Add to that a substantive commentary and decent array of other supplements and the investment is a no-brainer.
Choose this disc.
Review content copyright © 2004 Dan Mancini; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* DTS 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
Running Time: 94 Minutes
Release Year: 1996
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Feature Commentary
* Deleted Scenes with Optional Commentary
* Trainspotting Retrospective Featurettes
* Cannes Film Festival Interviews
* Cannes Snapshot Featurette
* The Making of Trainspotting Featurette
* Cast and Crew Biographies
* Photo Gallery