Trainspotting — the book, the movie, the soundtrack, the multimedia phenom (next comes the CD-ROM, no doubt) — has been likened to A Clockwork Orange, which also made hay with British youth by being scandalous and “evil” in the eyes of grown-ups. The book, at least, merits the comparison. Irvine Welsh’s anecdotal novel is alive with musical prose: “Ah went to take a shot. It took us ages tae find a good vein. Ma boys don’t live as close tae the surface as maist people’s. When it came, ah savored the hit …. Take yir best orgasm, multiply the feeling by twenty, and you’re still fuckin miles off the pace.” Welsh’s genius, like Anthony Burgess’ in A Clockwork Orange, was to sustain an alien dialect that first distances you from the squalor and then, as you pick up more of the native tongue, makes you feel like an insider for understanding words like “tolchock” or “radge.” The prose sucks you in, makes you an honorary droog or junkie.
The movie Trainspotting inevitably loses much of Welsh’s linguistic power. But director Danny Boyle, like Stanley Kubrick before him, tries the equivalent effect with images. When the hero — Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor), a spirited Edinburgh junkie — must sift through appalling toilet water in search of placebo suppositories, Boyle has him sink into the toilet and swim through an inky blue void. The result, both lyrical and repellently literal, is a moment Kubrick might envy. Scene for scene, Trainspotting isn’t in the same league as Clockwork; its dramatic arc is similar (Renton, like Alex, gradually reforms), but Boyle doesn’t seduce us into complicity with violence. The movie’s scariest character, the barroom brawler Begbie (Robert Carlyle), strikes like a Scottish twister and is clearly seen as the border between good dirty fun and a bad scene. Begbie would thrash all four of Kubrick’s droogs.
As rude and scatalogical as Trainspotting often is, it represents a leap in maturity for Boyle and his scripter John Hodge, who broke through in 1994 with the nasty Hitchcockian doodle Shallow Grave. That effort was so cold and remorseless it made Blood Simple look like Forrest Gump, and it left a bad taste in my mouth, as if Begbie had directed it. Trainspotting is lighter and more compassionate; among its deeper merits is that it proves a movie doesn’t have to be mean to be fresh.
Trainspotting, the title, refers to a meaningless activity meant to lend the illusion of structure to an aimless existence. It’s Welsh’s metaphor for the addictive rituals of heroin. Most of the young protagonists shoot up, but the movie isn’t really about heroin — the drug could just as easily be moloko-plus or mugwump juice. It’s about the irony of youth being so averse to societal cages — “Choose life, choose a family, choose a job” — that they forge their own chains. Ewan McGregor, whom I found insufferable in Shallow Grave, is much better here; his Renton, confiding in us through sardonic narration, is a serviceable heir to Malcolm McDowell’s sly-fox Alex. We like the little fucker, and we wish him well. Trainspotting may only be the art-house flavor of the month, but McGregor and Boyle make it tasty.