Trainspotting (1995)
Directed by Danny Boyle

Artistic Value: * * * *
Entertainment Value: * * * * ½

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Renton (Ewan McGregor), a heroin addict in Edinburgh, decides to quit the habit but discovers that his old friends continue to play a part in his life and make changing a difficult task.

Danny Boyle's Trainspotting is a frequently harrowing film. Combining brutal images of the nasty consequences of drug abuse with strange and equally disturbing comic elements, he has created a movie that is both terribly sad and, ultimately, truly hopeful.

Throughout much of its duration, Trainspotting is dark and oppressive. By showing how the various characters' limitations and crippling addictions ensure that they suffer one horrible catastrophe after another, the director effectively brings out the tragedies of their lives. From the death of a female friend's baby from utter neglect to that of a member of their circle from AIDS, the protagonists are surrounded by misery and seem doomed to end their brief lives in pathetic anonymity. Occasionally, the director is a little heavy-handed in his depictions of the consequences of their actions and does, at times, indulge in preaching, but, by and large, he is able to evoke a terrible sense of sadness in the viewer with his presentations of the various events that transpire through the course of the movie.

This sense of despair is heightened by Boyle's inclusion of frequent humorous touches which help to emphasize the characters' sufferings or their inability to behave in socially acceptable ways. When, for example, Renton drops some drugs into what he proclaims to be "Scotland's filthiest toilet," and which looks to have a legitimate claim to that title, the director portrays him diving into the bowl, into some deep, dark pool within it, at the very bottom of which, like some sunken treasure, are the drugs for which he is so willing to degrade himself. Elsewhere in the movie, Renton's psychopathic friend Begbie (Robert Carlyle), who brags incessantly about never having tried drugs, brutally assaults various persons without hesitation, displaying that he is even more of a deviant than are any of the addicts. All these elements are genuinely funny, but, when the viewer laughs, he does so in relief, glad that he is not leading such a life. This feeling, in turn, helps to heighten the feelings of tragedy attached to the lives of the film's characters.

Although infused through much of its duration with a sense of almost unbearable misery, in the end, Trainspotting is not a sorrowful film. However wretched Renton's life has become, however much he has degraded himself, he not only realizes his own failings but wants to raise himself above the condition to which he has sunk. He often fails, but he does not abandon hope. When he first tries to give up drugs in the film, his connections to his friends, and his inability to fit back into the ordinary world, draw him back to the world of drug use. Even having so succumbed to the allures of his old life, he does not surrender, but tries again. The viewer is submerged in Renton's sorrow, but the deeper he is engulfed in the character's misery, the brighter any hope that presents itself to Renton will appear to be. The director, although he does occasionally falter, is largely successful in evoking both emotions. He has, as a consequence, created a profoundly affecting movie.

What is more, the performances of the actors are, without exception, outstanding. McGregor, in particular, is a real delight. He shows us a man who, apparently, wants to be a decent person, but, being trapped by his own addiction, often behaves atrociously. He is not a pure hero or a simple villain but a complex, flawed individual, and the actor demonstrates real skill in bringing the nuances of Renton's character to life.

Trainspotting may not be a masterpiece, but it is genuinely moving. The viewer is likely to experience feelings both of despair and of hope, and to be enthralled by his experience of each.

Review by Keith Allen

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