The Trainspotting phenomenon... 20 years on

Arriving in cinemas 20 years ago, Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting was a pop-cultural event and the defining British film of its era. Were we right to get so excited?

Paul O’Callaghan
Updated:

Trainspotting (1996)

Trainspotting (1996)

“Hollywood come in, please, your time is up. Not only can we compete, we can knock you straight into the ground.” Thus gushed Empire’s Ian Nathan in his review of Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting, which hit UK cinema screens 20 years ago this year. If Nathan’s proclamation, which was promptly emblazoned all over the film’s now-iconic posters, today sounds a trifle hyperbolic (or indeed a little aggressively nationalistic), it’s important to remember the cultural climate in which his verdict was formed.

Trainspotting’s ascent from hotly tipped indie film to bona fide pop culture phenomenon happened so seamlessly and rapidly, it’s easy to overlook how thrilling and unlikely a success story it was. Granted, Boyle was hot property following the breakout success of his darkly comic debut Shallow Grave (1994), and Irvine Welsh’s source novel had a strong cult following. But it should also be remembered that Trainspotting starred a cast of relative unknowns, was shot on a shoestring budget of £1.5m, and is at its core a bracingly explicit, sexually frank, occasionally horrifyingly scatological tale of impoverished junkies, who frequently speak in a dialect so broad, it was seriously proposed at one point that the film would have to be subtitled for American audiences.

Trainspotting (1996)

Trainspotting (1996)

And yet, by the end of its theatrical run, it had become the second highest-grossing British film of all time, behind 1994’s Four Weddings and a Funeral – an unlikely bedfellow if ever there was one. To this day, it remains one of only a handful of ‘fully’ British films (ie with no American studio backing) to have grossed over £10m at the domestic box office.

So why did Trainspotting capture the popular imagination in a way that few British indie films have before or since? Partly, it’s a case of impeccable timing. The film is of course synonymous with the Britpop era, thanks largely to soundtrack contributions from the likes of Blur, Pulp, Underworld and Sleeper. But, crucially, Trainspotting landed while the musical movement was still imbued with a little rock’n’roll swagger, before its inevitable decline towards corporate blandness. The film hit UK cinemas the same week that Jarvis Cocker cemented his status as a countercultural hero by invading the stage during Michael Jackson’s excruciating BRIT Awards performance. The big winners that night were Oasis, who returned to the top of both the album and single charts during Trainspotting’s opening weekend. The brightest stars of the day were a bunch of pasty, dishevelled, booze and drug-addled hell-raisers, and there was a genuine sense of pride in our roster of home-grown talent. This proved an absolute gift to the film’s marketing team, whose campaign centred around stylish monochrome portraits of the cast, positioning them almost as if they were a band on the brink of global domination.

Trainspotting (1996) poster

But the way in which Trainspotting captured the zeitgeist of 1996 goes way beyond savvy aesthetic choices. Welsh’s novel is an unflinching portrait of Thatcher-era Leith, an Edinburgh district contending at the time with shockingly high unemployment, widespread substance abuse problems, and a devastating HIV epidemic. Yet while the film certainly never shies away from these grim truths, Boyle is essentially a wide-eyed, big-hearted optimist, as he’s demonstrated more explicitly throughout his subsequent career. Trainspotting captures the giddy elation of young love and camaraderie, of going out and getting wasted (and laid) on a school night, of living for the moment, just as well as it conveys the all-consuming horror and degradation of addiction. Looking back now, it makes perfect sense that a film that oscillates so seamlessly between shocking darkness and ecstatic joy would connect with a generation that had lived through the grimness of the 80s recession, but were now eagerly anticipating a fresh new start under a nascent New Labour. Of course, now that we understand how woefully misplaced that optimism was, it’s the film’s more despairing elements that resonate the strongest.

Trainspotting (1996)

Trainspotting (1996)

Then there’s the fact that, thanks largely to the phenomenal success of Pulp Fiction (1994), there was recent proven commercial appetite for material this potently provocative and grimly humorous. As such, distributor PolyGram was confident enough to spend an extra £800,000 – over half the production budget again – on domestic marketing. Consequently, pre-release hype for Trainspotting reached and sustained a level that would be nigh-on impossible for a small-scale, home-grown film to achieve in our current age of information overload.

All of this would, of course, have meant very little if the film itself had been anything less than stellar. But from the first frame, Trainspotting dazzles with its audacious technique, frenetic editing and luridly heightened sense of realism. Ewan McGregor adds substance to the style, with his captivatingly amoral central performance as Mark Renton. Addicts are often depicted on screen as living so far outside the margins of civilised society, it’s hard to truly imagine yourself in their shoes. But while Renton’s actions are sometimes despicable, he remains essentially relatable throughout. We’re offered no harrowing backstory to justify his poor life choices, no pat psychological explanation to reassure us this could never happen to us. The film is essentially a universal coming-of-age tale, in which our hero must come to terms with the fact that, should he wish for his life to amount to anything, his days of hedonism are numbered. It’s just that the stakes are raised to almost unbearable levels by the fact that Renton’s particular brand of youthful folly carries with it a strong possibility of long-term imprisonment or instant death.

Trainspotting (1996)

Trainspotting (1996)

McGregor is more than ably abetted by a superb supporting cast, including Jonny Lee Miller as suave, Byronesque sociopath Sick Boy, Robert Carlyle as snarling, repressed, hard-drinking psychopath Begbie, and Ewen Bremner as the endearingly inept Spud. Their behaviour towards one another is often deplorable, but the film is propelled by an underlying sense of camaraderie. As critic Roger Ebert so astutely observed at the time: “The reason there is a fierce joy in Trainspotting, despite the appalling things that happen in it, is that it’s basically about friends in need.”

Of course, Ian Nathan’s prophecy that Trainspotting would kick-start a Hollywood-crippling British film revolution didn’t quite come to pass. But revisiting the film, it’s easy to see why one might have briefly believed that something extraordinary and world-changing was taking place. It is cinematic bottled lightning, a once-in-a-generation marvel that feels as fresh today as it did 20 years ago.

Behind the scenes on Trainspotting

Danny Boyle, Jonny Lee Miller and Ewan McGregor filming the park shooting scene

Danny Boyle, Jonny Lee Miller and Ewan McGregor filming the park shooting scene
Credit: Liam Longman

Boyle with the kitten that plays a fateful part in the life of Tommy (Kevin McKidd)

Boyle with the kitten that plays a fateful part in the life of Tommy (Kevin McKidd)
Credit: Liam Longman

Filming from the inside of a locker, with Ewan Bremner

Filming from the inside of a locker, with Ewan Bremner
Credit: Liam Longman

Cinematographer Brian Tufano lines up a shot for the infamous toilet diving sequence with Ewan McGregor

Cinematographer Brian Tufano lines up a shot for the infamous toilet diving sequence with Ewan McGregor
Credit: Liam Longman

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