Skip to main content

It's shite being Scottish!

Trainspotting
(1996)

(SPOILERS) It’s easy to understand Danny Boyle’s urge to revisit Trainspotting. After all, even given the Oscar garlands for Slumdog Millionaire, he’s probably naggingly aware that it’s where his career peaked creatively. Which isn’t to say he shouldn’t still have known better. How often does good come from returning to old stomping grounds, let alone zeitgeist-defining pictures? Does anyone remember Texasville? If he’d gone back to Trainspotting 10 years on, it would likely have seemed as unnecessary and dismissible as a More American Graffiti or Staying Alive, particularly given the Irvine Welsh sequel novel (Porno) no one was really very fussed by. But having two decades pass, due to the way things have panned out, rather than through planning, T2 Trainspotting has a lure built both into its characters and audience, and in a very different way to reuniting with (say) Indiana Jones after a similar lapse of time: nostalgia.


I’m not one to usually fall for that ploy, not being much of a sentimentalist, but even I recognise how culturally charged the picture was, for better or worse (it had been packaged as such out of the gate, even if its road to the screen showed no such confidence in ultimate success): because it’s a youth film, if you were of a certain age when it was released it carried a certain weight and personality that even another of that era, as defining as it was – but purely in movie terms – lacked (Pulp Fiction). What it also shares with Pulp Fiction, though, is that it’s reception wasn’t a flash in the pan; it boasts justified longevity. Much as I rate Boyle’s predecessor, Shallow Grave – and, in some ways, I’d argue it’s superior: narratively tighter and as relevant to its era while cloaked in genre regalia – Trainspotting casts a much, much longer shadow for immediately obvious reasons. It’s still fresh, vital, awake, very much inhabiting the kind of terrain A Clockwork Orange did two and a half decades earlier, and showing it doesn’t necessarily need a super-young director (Boyle was knocking 40) to spark off the joys and perils of youth.


A Clockwork Orange shares several traits with Trainspotting that, because they’re done so well, make it all look so easy. But, if they were, they’d be done every time. Besides the trappings – that of couture and style, be it bowlers and make-up or heroin chic – the tales are narrated by a charmingly reprehensible anti-hero (this they share with Scorsese’s Goodfellas, and Begbie’s unhinged violence owes a huge debt to that film’s Joe Pesci). Indeed, the confidential, casual, informative relationship the narrator has with the viewer of these pictures is key to their success, even beyond somersaulting visuals and striking soundtracks. And it’s very notable that neither Malcolm McDowell or Ewan McGregor (or Ray Liotta for that matter) ever had a role as good again (before seeing it, I’d have argued that, if T2 didn’t use that device, even without the same propelling energy, it would be hard to consider it of the same stock).


In McGregor’s case, one has to only select his third Danny Boyle collaboration, A Life Less Ordinary (you’d forgotten it? Join the club) to identify where it all went wrong. On the surface, everything that was in their previous two pictures is present and correct – an exuberant, pop sensibility, a hip soundtrack, a winning stylistic confidence – but tonally and narratively it’s entirely at variance. And crucially, McGregor plays a likeable sap. In Shallow Grave (where he’s an entirely unsympathetic character) and Trainspotting, the actor’s feckless charm is used to provide an “in” to his protagonists’ less savoury qualities, and it’s this underling tension that is key to his early rise to fame. It’s something that’s been almost entirely absent from later roles, and (in my opinion) a key to why his stardom has waned to a tepid permanence.


After all, Mark Renton’s a character who, aside from being a no-good junky, directly instigates the chain of events that lead to poor Tommy’s demise (he not only steals that sex video, but also provides him his first hit), steals from his parents, his friends (no matter how convincing he is in justifying his actions), and whose response to the discovery of a dead baby is to cook up. As he says at the end, “The truth is, I’m a bad person, but I’m going to change” (albeit, it is framed with sarcasm: “I’m going to be just like you” as if we are truly any better, a debilitating drug habit aside). And we don’t really believe him. After all, when Renton gave up drugs, he filled the void with a plunge into the realm of rampant capitalism (the picture’s only explicit reference to Welsh’s original timeframe is Thatcher’s “There was certainly no such thing as society”), suggesting whatever is corrupted, gnawing at Renton’s soul will take some fixing. He has a conscience, undoubtedly, but not an insurmountably troubled one.


Renton: So, we all get old, and we canna hack it anymore, and that’s it?
Sick Boy: Yeah.
Renton: That’s your theory?
Sick Boy: Yeah.

The above exchange is interesting, as Boyle is almost daring himself with T2 not to fall into step Trainspotting mocked as sadly inevitable. And, even if T2 had been a masterpiece, it’s still a picture that evidences those signs of age and decay. One might say that at least McGregor has carried on making varied movies. Most of his cohorts, Bremner honourably excepted, but then he was never a standard lead, have succumbed to the safety of long-running US series (Johnny Lee Miller, Kevin McKidd, Robert Carlyle), while Boyle’s newly-crowned establishment colours found him flaunting Olympics obeisance which, besides an NHS shout out, saw him accused of promulgating imagery in supplication to the damned tentacular Illuminati.


Sick Boy: The Name of the Rose is merely a blip on an otherwise uninterrupted downward trajectory.
Renton: Well, what about The Untouchables?
Sick Boy: I don’t rate that at all.

Regarding Sick Boy’s Connery obsession, I have to disagree with him on a number of counts, such as using box office as proof that his last official Bond stank up the place (“Goldfinger’s better than Dr No, both of them are a lot better than Diamonds are Forever”); if that were so, his cited Thunderball would be a masterpiece (Diamonds are Forever is, of course, the best Connery Bond). As for his dismissal of The Untouchables, I can only assume he also loathed The Last Crusade, since Connery did indeed undergo something of a minor career renaissance at that time. His Connery impression is peerless, however (“Do you shee the beesht ? Have you got in your shights?”), so I forgive him.


The last third of Trainspotting sort-of coasts on the sheer incident-packed delirium of the first hour. John Hodge’s restructuring of Welsh seems deceptively straightforward but is in fact dazzlingly detailed and complex, packing so much into 90 minutes that it’s an object lesson how screenwriting can be, rather than often is. Renton quits smack in the first five minutes and doesn’t take it up again for another 30, during which we experience such marvels as the Worst Toilet in Scotland, Spud attending a job interview and shitting the bed, antics with Kelly McDonald that would get Renton put on a register, and his famous tirade about his home country (“It’s shite being Scottish!”) 


The middle section has the dead baby (“So I cooked up and she got a hit, but only after me”), and the masterful OD sequence (Perfect Day used to sublime effect, and Peter Mullan’s assured cameo as Mother Superior/Swanney). I have to admit, the cold turkey sequence, as feted as it is, doesn’t really have the punch claimed of it; it’s a little too structured and devised in its horror (though McGregor’s performance is entirely dedicated).


But then we reach the final act, with Renton selling real estate, putting up with Begbie, and then Sick Boy (“I can’t believe you did that” When the latter sells his TV) and then getting in on a deal to sell some narratively-convenient (and so lacking the same kind of authenticity seen hitherto) skag. It works, much of it down to the edgy fury Carlyle brings to Begbie, and Renton’s final escape, with the sad Spud looking on, to an unknown but hopeful future overseen by Underworld’s Born Slippy, suggests the false dawns of Britpop and Blairism, the Cool Britannia of which Boyle in his way was a part; the pisstake of Renton’s first arrival in London, to the accompaniment of Ice MC, is a far more fitting summary of the vacuous, queasy fall from grace to come.


Boyle’s technical mastery has never been in doubt, but it’s been employed in the aid of increasingly less-assured material since, be it his broken-backed third acts as delivered by Alex Garland (The Beach – which fractured the McGregor honeymoon – 28 Days Later and Sunshine), or exercises in narrative (127 Hours, Steve Jobs), or simply technique (Trance). He needs to find scripts again that have teeth. But he probably can’t. Because he’s old and canna hack it any more.




Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

You’re never the same man twice.

The Man Who Haunted Himself (1970)
(SPOILERS) Roger Moore playing dual roles? It sounds like an unintentionally amusing prospect for audiences accustomed to the actor’s “Raise an eyebrow” method of acting. Consequently, this post-Saint pre-Bond role (in which he does offer some notable eyebrow acting) is more of a curiosity for the quality of Sir Rog’s performance than the out-there premise that can’t quite sustain the picture’s running time. It is telling that the same story was adapted for an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents 15 years earlier, since the uncanny idea at its core feels like a much better fit for a trim 50 minute anthology series.

Basil Dearden directs, and co-adapted the screenplay from Anthony Armstrong’s novel The Strange Case of Mr Pelham. Dearden started out with Ealing, helming several Will Hay pictures and a segment of Dead of Night (one might imagine a shortened version of this tale ending up there, or in any of the portmanteau horrors that arrived in the year…

Romulan ale should be illegal.

Star Trek: Nemesis (2002)
(SPOILERS) Out of the ST:NG movies, Star Trek: Nemesis seems to provoke the most outrage among fans, the reasons mostly appearing to boil down to continuity and character work. In the case of the former, while I can appreciate the beef, I’m not enough of an aficionado to get too worked up. In the case of the latter, well, the less of the strained inter-relationships between this bunch that make it to the screen, the better (director Stuart Baird reportedly cut more than fifty minutes from the picture, most of it relating to underscoring the crew, leading to a quip by Stewart that while an Actor’s Cut would include the excised footage, a Director’s one would probably be even shorter). Even being largely unswayed by such concerns, though, Nemesis isn’t very good. It wants to hit the same kind of dramatic high notes as The Wrath of Khan (naturally, it’s always bloody Khan) but repeatedly drifts into an out-of-tune dirge.

‘Cos I’m the gringo who always delivers.

American Made (2017)
(SPOILERS) This is definitely more the sort of thing Tom Cruise should be doing, a movie that relies both on his boyish™ charm and at least has pretensions of ever so slightly pushing the envelope of standard multiplex fare, rather than desperately attaching himself to an impersonal franchise (The Mummy) or flailingly attempting to kick start one (Jack Reacher: Never Go Back); remember when Cruise wouldn’t even go near sequels (for about 20 years, The Color of Money aside, and then only the one series)? American Made is still victim to the tendency of his movies to feel superstar-fitted rather than remaining as punchy as they might be on paper (Made’s never quite as satirically sharp as it wants to be), but it at least doesn’t lead its audience by the nose.

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

By Jove, the natives are restless tonight.

The Avengers 4.17: Small Game for Big Hunters
I wonder if Death at Bargain Prices’ camping scene, suggestive of an exotic clime but based in a department store, was an inspiration for Small Game For Big Hunters’ more protracted excursion to the African country of Kalaya… in Hertfordshire. Gerry O’Hara, in his second of two episodes for the show again delivers on the atmosphere, making the most of Philip Levene’s teleplay.

Two hundred thousand pounds, for this outstanding example of British pulchritude and learning.

The Avengers 4.18: The Girl From Auntie
I’ve mentioned that a few of these episodes have changed in my appreciation since I last watched the series, and The Girl from Auntie constitutes a very pronounced uptick. Indeed, I don’t know how I failed to rate highly the estimable Liz Fraser filling in for Diana Rigg – mostly absent, on holiday –for the proceedings (taking a not dissimilar amateur impostor-cum-sidekick role to Fenella Fielding in the earlier The Charmers). I could watch Fraser all day, and it’s only a shame this was her single appearance in the show.

Old Boggy walks on Lammas Eve.

Jeeves and Wooster 2.5: Kidnapped  (aka The Mysterious Stranger)
Kidnapped continues the saga of Chuffnell Hall. Having said of 2.4 that the best Wodehouse adaptations tend to stick closely to the text, this one is an exception that proves the rule, diverging significantly yet still scoring with its highly preposterous additions.

Jeeves: Tis old boggy. He be abroad tonight. He be heading for the railway station.
Gone are many of the imbroglios involving Stoker and Glossop (the estimable Roger Brierley), including the contesting of the former’s uncle’s will. Also gone, sadly, is the inebriated Brinkley throwing potatoes at Stoker, which surely would have been enormous fun. Instead, we concentrate on Bertie being locked aboard Stoker’s yacht in order to secure his marriage to Pauline (as per the novel), Chuffy tailing Pauline in disguise (so there’s a different/additional reason for Stoker to believe Bertie and she spent the night together, this time at a pub en route to Chufnell Hall) and …

Cally. Help us, Cally. Help Auron.

Blake's 7 3.7: Children of Auron

Roger Parkes goes a considerable way towards redeeming himself for the slop that was Voice from the Past with his second script for the series, and newcomer Andrew Morgan shows promise as a director that never really fulfilled itself in his work on Doctor Who (but was evident in Knights of God, the 1987 TV series featuring Gareth Thomas).

Never compare me to the mayor in Jaws! Never!

Ghostbusters (2016)
(SPOILERS) Paul Feig is a better director than Ivan Reitman, or at very least he’s savvy enough to gather technicians around him who make his films look good, but that hasn’t helped make his Ghostbusters remake (or reboot) a better movie than the original, and that’s even with the original not even being that great a movie in the first place.

Along which lines, I’d lay no claims to the 1984 movie being some kind of auteurist gem, but it does make some capital from the polarising forces of Aykroyd’s ultra-geekiness on the subject of spooks and Murray’s “I’m just here for the asides” irreverence. In contrast, Feig’s picture is all about treating the subject as he does any other genre, be it cop, or spy, or romcom. There’s no great affection, merely a reliably professional approach, one minded to ensure that a generous quota of gags (on-topic not required) can be pumped out via abundant improv sessions.

So there’s nothing terribly wrong with Ghostbusters, but aside from …