In 1996 very few people knew the name Ewan McGregor. Long before he played Obi Wan Kenobi in the STAR WARS prequels, before BIG FISH (2003) and MOULIN ROUGE (2001), McGregor was a favorite actor for new filmmaker Danny Boyle (127 HOURS, SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE). Hot off their success together with indie SHALLOW GRAVE (1994), McGregor and Boyle teamed up to bring TRAINSPOTTING to the screen. Both were catapulted to new heights by the success of the relatively small film all around the world. Now released on Blu-ray, I was excited to get the chance to watch and review one of the transcendent films of my lifetime… but did it hold up 15 years later?
TRAINSPOTTING was adapted from a novel of the same name by Irvine Welsh, and is the story of Mark Renton (the young McGregor) and his friends living in Scotland and dealing with heroine addiction. At the start of the film we join Renton and his friend Spud (the greatly underappreciated Ewen Bremner) as they are running from the police. Renton’s voiceover tells us about the problems with society’s expectations in a manic state. Suddenly Renton is hit by a car… and we are transported to his world of heroine addiction.
Renton, Spud, and Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller) are at the apartment of their dealer, Mother Superior (nicknamed “for the length of his habit”), played with a sleazy grin by Peter Mullan. They’re each shooting up and Renton is telling us the joys of heroin: “The ultimate hit, better than sex…” and then we see a baby playing on the floor of the apartment while her mother gets high. It’s a startling image, but one that fits the freeform style of the story. The plot follows Renton as he attempts to give up his habit and to get out of the cycle that has taken over his life. His addiction is destroying his relationships; in addition to the strained relationship with his parents, Renton realizes that he doesn’t have any real friends. Just the boys that he’s run with since he was little, all of whom are equally users of some type. There’s the previously mentioned Spud and Sick Boy, Begbie (a terrifying sociopath played by Robert Carlyle), and Tommy (a young Kevin McKidd), the one clean friend of the group.
TRAINSPOTTING got a lot of grief when it was initially released for glorifying drug use, but I don’t think anything could be further from the truth. The first half of the movie certainly shows the lighter side from the addicts’ point of view, but every scene like this has immediate juxtaposition by presenting the other side; the appearance of the neglected baby, random acts of violence, or the manic voice-over ramblings of a drug addicted Renton. However, I would argue (and agree with the standpoint presented on the commentary track) that the film is simply told from this one point of view. It doesn’t make a moral judgment or force us to think of anything… we simply watch as these young men go further and further down the rabbit’s hole. Renton, while charismatic, isn’t presented as any more of a hero than anyone else in the film. He’s not a good guy. He’s done (and continues to do) terrible things (including sleeping with a 14 year old girl). It is a credit to McGregor’s magnetic presence on screen that you do actually find yourself rooting for him, despite all of these things.
So does TRAINSPOTTING hold up? 15 years later and I’m in a completely different place in my life than I was when I saw it for the first time. It’s incredibly difficult to watch, with a couple of scenes in particular that just made me feel dirty and gross. But this is a success. Because the movie isn’t slanted one way or the other it is left to the viewer to watch and inevitably see a very true story about addiction. While this isn’t a movie that can be watched over and over, it certainly lives up to its press.
Video: (1080p, 1.85:1 Widescreen) The transfer is pretty nicely done. You wouldn’t know until you watch the deleted scenes that this film was made in 1996. Boyle’s style presents better on Blu-ray than even DVD, preserving the feeling of being right there with these guys through the wonder and absolute terror of drug abuse.
Audio: (English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio) Very nicely done, there are a few issues where the lows are hard to make out. A bit of forewarning, Scottish is a difficult accent for many American ears.
Commentary with Director Danny Boyle, Producer Andrew Macdonald, Screenwriter John Hodge, and Ewan McGregor. Originally pieced together from interviews in ’96, this commentary track was made for the criterion collection DVD. If you’ve already heard it there isn’t anything new here, but it’s a really good commentary, despite not being done in the traditional way.
Deleted Scenes (10:32) A group of scenes deleted from the film for time and flow. There are actually a couple of scenes that I would have liked to see in the final film, which is a rare find. There are 9 in total with optional commentary from the above mentioned group.
Trainspotting Retrospective: A collection of interview excerpts on various topics, some of which were done at the time of the films initial release (“then”) and others (“now”) that were put together for the DVD release. Some are extremely technical but very interesting if you want to get a look further into the process.
Look of the Film: THEN (04:02), NOW (03:14) and Sound of the Film: THEN (07:42), NOW (04:51)
Interviews: Origins, Irvine Welsh (04:37) Welsh shares how the story came together and how he became involved in the film. John Hodge (07:58) Screenwriter Hodge talks about his transition from Doctor to writer and how he came to work on this film. This is a nice inside look at how an adaptation is done from a writer’s perspective. Danny Boyle (14:32) A similar look at why Boyle decided to take on this project and the reason he made some of the choices that really made this film click. Andrew MacDonald (10:33) Producer MacDonald talks about why he wanted to see this novel become a film and some of the important pieces he wanted to be included in the film.
Behind the Needle An in-depth look at the one of the shooting up scenes. This is Boyle watching the scene on a monitor and discussing. This one is split into 3 sections (angles), each running (06:23) Angle 1 is Boyle watching the video and discussing the technical elements. Angle 2 is the video we could see on the monitor with Boyle. Angle 3 is split screen of the previous 2. An additional interview with McGregor on preparing with the Calton Athletic Boys, former heroin addicts who helped the actors prepare. (00:32).
The Making of TRAINSPOTTING (09:32) A standard “making-of” feature, including shots from the film and more interviews with the cast and crew discussing their process and bringing the book to the screen. It’s always nice to see a group who is excited about what they’re doing.
Cannes: Another compilation of short interviews with filmgoers from the Cannes Film Festival shortly after the screening of TRAINSPOTTING, separated out for your viewing pleasure. It’s a bit frustrating that you can’t just click “play all” on any of these, especially when some are less than a minute long. Included interviews: Martin Landau (00:54); Noel Gallagher (02:12); Damon Albarn (01:05); Ewan McGregor (00:47); A Cannes Snapshot (01:57)
Also included is an image Gallery (05:06) presented as Polaroid’s of the actors and extras involved, the Theatrical Teaser and the Theatrical Trailer.