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Strung Out in Edinburgh

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
July 26, 1996

"Trainspotting," the controversial adaptation of Irvine Welsh's 1993 collection of stories about the Edinburgh drug scene, is a cocktail of scuzzy charm, nerve and despair that seduces and repulses in nearly equal proportions. It packs a jolt, all right. But it leaves you with a brutal hangover, too.

Essentially, "Trainspotting" is to "Braveheart" what "Lord of the Flies" was to "Swiss Family Robinson." Its grit and realism serve as a brash response to the romanticism of Hollywood's recent Scottish epics. Created by the Scottish team of screenwriter John Hodge, producer Andrew Macdonald and director Danny Boyle (they made "Shallow Grave"), the film is dark, rude and subversively funny, with a jagged energy that only partially disguises its corrosive, pessimistic worldview.

In this Scotland, the successors to hero William Wallace are anything but proud of their heritage. "I hate being Scottish," snarls Renton (Ewan McGregor), the movie's main narrator and guide. "We're the lowest of the [blanking] low, the scum of the earth, the most wretched, servile, miserable, pathetic trash that was ever [blanked] into civilization."

For Renton and his buddies, Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller), Spud (Ewen Bremner), Tommy (Kevin McKidd) and Begbie (Robert Carlyle), Edinburgh has nothing to offer. During a voice-over at the film's beginning, Renton chants: "Choose life. Choose a job. Choose a career." But in the movie's scheme of things, these are dead ends. Bored, disgusted and angry, the characters rebel in the only way they know how -- they choose junk.

"Trainspotting" is the most hyped, most celebrated non-studio film since "Pulp Fiction." Does it live up to its marketing? Of course not. (What could?) Boyle was too cool by half in his approach to "Shallow Grave" and he's too cool here as well. Ultimately, he doesn't get inside the addict's head the way author Welsh does; in fact, he doesn't even try.

Still, "Trainspotting" is an exhilarating original. The filmmakers streamlined Welsh's fragmented book into a more coherent narrative. In the film, Renton becomes the dominant figure, and he's the most distressing symbol of antiheroic nihilism since Malcolm McDowell starred in "A Clockwork Orange." Like all junkies, Renton is constantly in the process of getting off drugs or back on them. And the ritual of kicking and copping is what gives the movie its narrative spine.

In one hilarious early scene, the stringy addict makes elaborate preparations to cleanse his body of its poisons, stocking up on canned soup, milk of magnesia and videos. Beside the bed, he carefully positions three buckets -- "one for urine, one for feces and one for vomitus." Surveying the scene, he pronounces himself ready. All he needs now is one last shot.

The rap on "Trainspotting" is that it glamorizes heroin use. But a film in which a infant dies of junkie indifference and the protagonist plunges into the swampy waters of a toilet bowl in search of lost opium suppositories could hardly be criticized for being soft on drugs. In truth, "Trainspotting" is no more tolerant of heroin than previous drug movies. The scenes in which Renton goes through withdrawal are, as usual, harrowing to watch.

What's different here is that the filmmakers have acknowledged the drug's powerful allure -- what Renton calls the pleasure of it.

The characters in "Trainspotting" are lively and charismatic; they're not your typical heroin zombies. Still, they're anything but heroes. Spud is the doofus of the group. Not too smart to begin with, he's been mainlining for so long he doesn't know his head from a soccer ball. Sick Boy, a Nick Rhodes look-alike obsessed with Sean Connery, is a pretty-boy opportunist. And, in the end, Renton is a double-crosser.

On the other hand, the group's ragged camaraderie and the profane vitality of their conversation draw us in. The actors who play them are spectacular, especially Bremner's addlebrained Spud and Carlyle's vicious Begbie. And as Renton, McGregor manages to convey the contradictions within this messed-up boy without robbing him of resilience and charisma.

In the end, the picture doesn't arrive at any grand conclusions about the scene it depicts, nor does it take a final moral stance on drugs. In that sense, the filmmakers remain true to Welsh's acid fatalism. Renton isn't a burnout yet, and he's been lucky enough so far to avoid AIDS. If his luck holds out, he may still be able to pull himself together.

Question is, for what?

Trainspotting is rated R for drug use, sex and language.

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