Trainspotting at 25

By Aoife McDowell / March 5, 2021
Trainspotting at 25

This week marks 25 years since Danny Boyle’s cult classic Trainspotting was released in cinemas. Since its first release, Trainspotting has achieved cult status and still remains popular with audiences today. What exactly is it that makes this film so popular and relevant to audiences a quarter of a century after its initial release?

Initial release

When Trainspotting, based on Irvine Welsh’s novel of the same name, first hit film theatres in February 1996 it was seen as a defining moment in British cinema. The low budget film became an instant hit and was the highest grossing British film of that year. 

The film was a strange mix of youthful optimism and nihilism. On the one hand, the film was dark, portraying the hopelessness and despair felt by young people growing up during the mass unemployment and poverty of Thatcher’s Britain. On the other hand, the film had a great sound track and stunning visuals, a reflection of the “Cool Britannia” cultural revival that was sweeping the UK at the time. 

The film has long been hailed as a cult classic and has maintained unwavering popularity throughout the years since it was released. A quarter of a century on, how does the movie hold up and is it still as relevant today as it was then?

Soundtrack

It’s impossible to talk about the success of Trainspotting and it’s lasting legacy without mentioning the accompanying soundtrack. This has now obtained as much of a cult status as the film itself. Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life” plays as the opening credits run and is arguably the most famous song now associated with the movie, followed closely by Underworld’s unforgettable “Born Slippy”. Both songs are arguably timeless and sound as new to audiences now as they did then. 

The music in the film does not restrict itself to one genre or era of music, making it less of a movie mixtape and more of a  soundtrack to Renton’s life. The soundtrack cements itself with the great icons of music history such as Iggy Pop, Lou Reid, Blur, and Underworld, which has allowed it to stand the test of time.

Visuals

Trainspotting is unarguably a unique film in terms of visuals. The film employs both surrealist and realist techniques which play with the audience throughout. Take for example, one of the most memorable scenes, when Renton dives down a toilet bowl and is transported into a deep blue sea where he can swim around. The audience is left asking what just happened? The creativity and uniqueness of scenes such as this transport the audience into a borderline hallucinatory state reflecting the chaos of the film.

Every shot and sequence is impressively put together and oozes originality. Even today it is hard to find a film with quite the same style. The film may have been made 25 years ago, but the unique way it’s filmed and put together still feels new and creative.

Social issues

The themes explored both directly and indirectly in the film still resonate with audiences. The film is set in Thatcher’s Scotland, when mass unemployment was rife amongst young people. The film may centre around heroin addiction, which a majority of audiences probably cannot relate to, but the mundanity of everyday life that Renton is trying to escape resonates with many. His first speech in the film tells viewers to “choose life”. In the same speech, he reduces life to mundane tasks and worthlessness such as “ DIY and wondering who you are on a Sunday morning” and “ sitting on that couch watching mind-numbing Sprit-crushing game shows Stuffing fucking junk food into your mouth” until finally “rotting away at the end of it all.”

Renton and all of the main characters, seemingly have no aspirations and are just existing, trying to navigate through unemployment, friends, poverty and their own ennui. The film captures a sense of working-class apathy in a way other films have not quite managed. It does not shy away from the social impact that poverty has played in the characters’ disillusionment with normal life, but does not blame it outright either. Many of the social issues that were faced by Renton and the gang are still relevant to audiences today and it’s refreshing to see an unglamorous yet still endearing depiction of the normal everyday life that a lot of people face.

Scottish Independence

The film has also managed to stay relevant by featuring contemporary political issues. In one of Trainspotting’s most famous scenes Renton declares “it’s shite being Scottish!” and  “we can’t even find a decent culture to be colonised by.” Many note this speech as a criticism of Britain’s rule over Scotland and the push for independence. This scene and many others in the film seemed to take a dig at British rule, while simultaneously making Scottish people proud of their own national identity. 

As the last Scottish independence referendum was just six years ago and with another expected to succeed soon, it’s even more relevant to audiences today. The film’s subject matter hasn’t become dated or out of touch either, contributing to its long lasting popularity. 

Cast

The cast of Trainspotting unarguably added to its appeal over the years. Ewan McGreggor, who plays Renton, the lead character, committed himself to the role before filming had even started, losing two stone and shaving his head. Not only did he look the part, but this performance is one of his best. He has stayed a popular Scottish actor since the film’s debut, starring in movies such as Moulin Rouge, Star Wars and Chirstopher Robin.

Johnny Lee Miller, who played the part of Sick Boy, distinguishable by his distinct platinum blonde hair, was also praised for his acting. He has gone on to have a successful career, starring in such TV shows as Elementary and Dexter.

Ewan Bremner, who played the part of Spud, has been less active in recent years, but after his breakout role in Trainspotting, he went on to act in many other well known films in the late 90s and early 2000’s including Pearl Harbour and Snatch.

Since Kelly Macdonald made her debut in Trainspotting as Diane, she has also gone on to have a successful career in television and film, with  leading parts in massive films such as Nanny McPhee, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2

Although Robert Carlyle was already gaining recognition before his part as the psychopathic Begbie, the film helped catapult him to global success. Carlyle went on to land a leading part in 1997 smash The Full Monty and James Bond film The World Is Not Enough.

Danny Boyle’s cult classic may turn 25 years old this week, but it’s clear that the film is still as fresh and relevant today as ever. The film’s unique rawness and originality has cemented it as one of the greats and it’s enduring popularity doesn’t seem to be wavering anytime soon. 

Trainspotting is now streaming on All 4.

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Aoife McDowell

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