Trainspotting (4K UHD)

Director: Danny Boyle
Screenplay: John Hodge (based on the novel by Irvine Welsh)
Stars: Ewan McGregor (Renton), Ewen Bremner (Spud), Jonny Lee Miller (Sick Boy), Kevin McKidd (Tommy), Robert Carlyle (Begbie), Kelly Macdonald (Diane), Peter Mullan (Swanney), James Cosmo (Mr. Renton), Eileen Nicholas (Mrs. Renton), Susan Vidler (Allison), Pauline Lynch (Lizzy)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 1996
Country: U.K.
Trainspotting Criterion Collection 4K UHD

When writing about Danny Boyle’s breakout indie hit Trainspotting, it is difficult, if not impossible, to not start at the beginning—a problem that has clearly been faced by other writers given the number of reviews that begin with a discussion of the opening sequence. And why not? The opening six minutes of Trainspotting are as propulsive, enveloping, and utterly engaging as any six minutes ever committed to celluloid. It is a tour de force—a cinematic adrenaline shot propelled by the rhythm of the protagonist’s brutally honest voice-over narration and the thump-thump editing that works in concert with Iggy Pop’s pounding 1977 anthem “Lust for Life” (rarely has sound and image and tone and theme ever been so perfectly aligned). It is mordantly funny, brilliantly conceived, and a case study of narrative economy, introducing us to all the major characters, their blighted Edinburgh neighborhood, and their shared plight of drug addiction.

Trainspotting reunited director Danny Boyle with screenwriter John Hodge, producer Andrew Macdonald, and actor Ewan McGregor, all of whom collaborated two years earlier on Boyle’s feature debut, the brutal, cynical thriller Shallow Grave (1994), which writer Duncan Petrie fingered as the progenitor of a “New Scottish Cinema.” Whatever that film suggested about Boyle’s potential as a feature filmmaker was absolutely confirmed by Trainspotting, which took both Scottish and international cinema by storm. Set in Edinburgh’s dilapidated, working-class neighborhoods, which were far from the tony New Town section where Shallow Grave was set, Trainspotting delves deep into the world of heroin addiction and the generation of Scottish twentysomethings held in its poisonous thrall. As the central character, a lanky, narcissistic junkie named Mark Renton (McGregor), openly tells us, “I chose not to choose life. I chose something else. And the reasons? There are no reasons. Who needs reasons when you’ve got heroin?”

That is one way to put it, and bluntly at that, but there is a hard truth to Renton’s declaration that suffuses Trainspotting’s manic energy. As Renton explains it, there are no reasons beyond the heroin itself. Drugs take him and his friends away from their problems, so the only problem they are left with is how to get more drugs. As long as they are high, they are okay. Therefore, heroin becomes the end-all be-all of existence, dramatized in a grotesquely comical scene in which Renton literally climbs into the self-proclaimed worst toilet in Scotland to retrieve some.

The meandering, episodic plot (the cult novel on which it is based by Irvine Welsh is more of a collection of short stories than a coherent narrative) follows the misadventures of Renton and his mates: Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller), Spud (Ewen Bremner), Tommy (Kevin McKidd), and Begbie (Robert Carlyle). Tommy is the one clean member of the group, that is, until his girlfriend breaks up with him. Begbie doesn’t do drugs either, but he is an alcoholic sadist with no respect for human life. In many ways he is the most dangerous member of the group because he lacks anything resembling empathy.

Renton, Sick Boy, and Spud spend a great deal of their time holed up in a dingy flat owned by their drug source, a dealer named Mother Superior. They make various half-hearted attempts at getting jobs, but most of their time is spent stealing from anyone and everyone, even from retirement homes and their own parents. Drug addiction is their shared connection, and absent it there is no sense of why any of them would be friends. Later in the film, when Renton finally gets clean and starts working at a legitimate job in London, he doesn’t even miss them. Without the heroin, they have little to connect them. When Renton’s friends start showing up unexpectedly at his flat looking for a place to live, it is obvious how unfun they are when he is sober.

When Trainspotting was originally released, there was consternation in some quarters that it glorified heroin addiction—or at least made it seem appealing. And it is true that the film does not shy away from the pleasures of drug use. As Renton puts it, “People think [heroin addiction] is all about misery and desperation and death and all that shit, which is not to be ignored, but what they forget is the pleasure of it. Otherwise, we wouldn’t do it. After all, we’re not fucking stupid.” Renton describes a heroin high as “the best orgasm you’ve ever had, multiply it by 1,000, and you’re still nowhere close.” This is important because it gives a framework for understanding the characters’ actions. They are not stupid and they are not victims. They make a conscious choice to continue doing heroin, and the film traces what that choice exacts from their lives and the lives of those around them. It shows in great, often distressing detail how drugs rule them—how they can’t do anything without taking a hit first, so they are reduced to sensory-overloaded addicts who can’t enjoy anything else.

As he did in Shallow Grave, but even more so here, Boyle proves to be a master alchemist who mixes black humor, harsh reality, and surrealist detours. At the time, Trainspotting looked and felt like nothing else in its assemblage of brash cinematic references (A Clockwork Orange, A Hard Day’s Night); slow motion, fast motion, colored filters, hand-held cameras, and extreme close-ups.; graphic depictions of drug use and explicit sex; disturbing, nightmarish hallucinations; and not one, but two jaw-dropping scenes of hilariously gross scatological humor. It should all be too much, but it never is because the film’s wild, joyriding tone fits the characters’ lives so perfectly, drawing us into the bum-rush of their addiction and then slamming us (and them) upside the head with the brutal consequences. It is a daring, invigorating film that celebrates life without mincing the depths of despair and the omnipresence of death. The humor is real, but so are the gallows.

Trainspotting Criterion Collection 4K UHD

Aspect Ratio1.85:1
  • English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround
  • English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 stereo
  • SubtitlesEnglish
  • Audio commentary by director Danny Boyle, producer Andrew Macdonald, screenwriter John Hodge, and actor Ewan McGregor
  • Nine deleted scenes with commentary from the filmmakers
  • New interview with production designer Kave Quinn and costume designer Rachael Fleming
  • Off the Rails: The Making of Trainspotting, a documentary featuring archival interviews with cast and crew and behind-the-scenes footage
  • Memories of Trainspotting, a 2008 documentary featuring the filmmakers as well as actors McGregor, Kelly Macdonald, Ewen Bremner, and Robert Carlyle
  • Reflections from soundtrack artists Iggy Pop, Jarvis Cocker, Bobby Gillespie, Damon Albarn, Leftfield, and Underworld
  • Theatrical teaser and trailer
  • Essays by critic Graham Fuller and author Irvine Welsh, Welsh’s glossary of terms from the novel, and limited-edition glow-in-the-dark packaging
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateJanuary 30, 2024

    There will likely be some viewers who are taken aback by Criterion’s new presentation of Trainspotting, which was transferred in 4K from the original 35mm camera negative under director Danny Boyle’s supervision. The image, which features Dolby Vision HDR, looks quite a bit different from previous home video releases, especially in terms of color. Simply put, this is a much brighter, more colorful presentation, which allows primary hues to pop where they had previously been dull and desaturated (note, for example, the lush green of the Scottish highlands in the hiking scene or even the artificial turf in the opening soccer sequence). This makes sense because Boyle has always been drawn to bright, intense color schemes in his films, and this one is no different even if viewers have come to accept the duller presentations on previous DVD and Blu-ray releases. Nevertheless, this looks right to me, with the more vivid colors aligning with the film’s visual, narrative, and thematic intensities. I should also note how brilliantly the new transfer shows off the detail of the images, from the rankest grit and dirt in the dingy drug flat, to the train wallpaper in Renton’s childhood bedroom. Some scenes are very dark with strong black levels and shadow detail, and again these play well into the film’s overall look. There are two soundtrack options: the original two-channel stereo mix and a remixed 5.1-channel track. It should be noted that both of these are the original Scottish track, meaning they lack some of the redubbed dialogue that was made for the U.S. theatrical release owing to concerns that American viewers would miss a lot of the dialogue in its thick Scottish brogue. Truth be told, I can barely understand half of what Begbie and Spud are saying in the film, but that is what subtitles are for! (The inclusion of a glossary of Scottish slang in the insert booklet is helpful, as well.)

    As for supplements, there is quite a bit here, some of which dates back to Criterion’s 1997 laser disc release (which was the first to offer American viewers the original Scottish dialogue track). From the laserdisc we have an excellent screen-specific audio commentary by director Danny Boyle, producer Andrew Macdonald, screenwriter John Hodge, and actor Ewan McGregor, as well as nine deleted scenes (about 11 minutes total) with optional commentary. New to the Criterion disc is a 19-minute video interview with costume designer Rachael Fleming and production designer Kave Quinn, which offers a lot of insight into the film’s look and the pains they took in making sure it was both realistic and expressive of the characters. From previous DVD and Blu-ray releases we get a 12-minute featurette on the soundtrack that features interviews with Iggy Pop, Bobby Gillespie of Primal Scream, Damon Albarn, Jarvis Cocker, Neil Barnes of Leftfield, and Rick Smith and Karl Hyde of Underworld; Off the Rails: The Making of Trainspotting, a 46-minute making-of documentary that includes interviews with cast and crew; and Memories of Trainspotting, a 46-minute retrospective documentary from 2008 that features then-new interviews with Boyle, Macdonald, Hodge, and actors Kelly Macdonald, Ewen Bremner, and Robert Carlyle. We also get a teaser trailer, a theatrical trailer, and two and a half minutes of test reads done by McGregor for the Criterion laserdisc. The insert booklet includes essays by critic Graham Fuller and novelist Irvine Welsh and Welsh’s glossary of terms from the novel.

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    Overall Rating: (4)

    James Kendrick

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