No film punctured the aspirations of Cool Brittania, the promises of New Labour, or the tide of optimism that swept over the 1990s quite like Trainspotting, which remains one of the definitive visions of the decade, both cinematically and musically, thanks to its iconic soundtrack. While the film offers a more or less cohesive narrative, Irvine Welsh’s original novel, published in 1993, is actually closer to a collection of a short stories, detailing a series of characters living in the danker fringes of Edinburgh in a kind of Scottish version of James Joyce’s Dubliners. All of these characters are united by a drive towards one kind of addiction or another, most of which revolve around heroin in some way, but not quite consistently enough for the book to play as a straightforward expose about Edinburgh’s drug culture either. That spirit carries over into Danny Boyle’s film adaptation as well, which uses heroin addiction as the basis for a broader sensory addiction, an insatiable kinetic restlessness, that stems from each character’s suspicion that nothing productive can come of old age, or even middle age, resulting in an apocalyptic horizon that makes this feel like a millennial release even though it came out midway through the decade. By now the characters are the stuff of legend – Ewan McGregor’s Rent Boy, Jonny Lee Miller’s Sick Boy, Ewan Bremner’s Spud Kevin McKidd’s Tommy, and Robert Carlyle’s Begbie – and now play as archetypes of the 90s more than they could at the time, even if they were larger than life in their own day as well.
In Welsh’s original novel, even the short stories are split up into smaller sections, producing a highly fragmented and atomized narrative voice that Boyle here uses to outline the hyperactive stylistic blueprint that would turn him into a master of digital direction when the shift away from analog started to become more widespread. In that sense, the aesthetic of Trainspotting is very much proto-digital, especially in the way in which it converges cinema and music video, as if yearning to shoot with a device capable of capturing sound and image at the same time. There is virtually no moment in the film that isn’t scored to music, while most of the tracks on the soundtrack – and there are many extended tracks – are left to play in their entirety, allowing us to feel all their permutations and modulations in the present moment. Within the story itself, that finds its counterpart in the obsession with music that unites all five of the main characters, who seem to identify, initially, with the 70s punk stylings of Lou Reed and Iggy Pop, but gradually find themselves overtaken by dance mixes of 80s pop and, finally, the full-blown rave culture of the mid-90s. As a sonic text, Trainspotting thus contemplates the spectrum of time that passed between punk rock and rave music, with many of the most contorted and tortured postures of Rent Boy’s addiction bearing witness to the unbearable and agonised birth of the 90s from the residue of the 70s.
That musical evolution forms part of a wider contemplation of how the figure of the Angry Young Man of the British 1950s and 1960s syncs up with the renewed validation of working-class culture offered by Cool Britannia. While heroin may certainly lead to Rent Boy and his friends zoning out for days on end, it also functions as an incitement to discourse, leading to disquisitions on all manner of cultural subjects, from the comparative merits of Elvis Presley and Malcolm McLaren, to the decline of cinema in the previous twenty years, to the biography of Montgomery Clift. Throughout all these sequences, it becomes clear that addiction, and especially heroin addiction, is the only way in which these characters can achieve some kind of countercultural vantage point on the present – or, rather, the only way that they can acknowledge that this vantage point has become impossible, and was perhaps always mythical to begin with. For that reason, drug use increasingly comes to feel like a way of channeling an older kind of British masculine identity, and a strategy for communing with the punk rock past, even as the ever-shifting flow of history means that by the time the film ends, heroin has become as dated as punk rock, replaced by a ravesphere whose most alienating feature is that it presumes a completely new set of drug coordinates.
In a strange way, then, Trainspotting is an elegy for heroin as much as an elegy for punk rock, although both are quickly fused into an elegy for the Angry Young Men that animated so much of British counterculture in the wake of World War II. As many writers have noted, the very aggression of this subculture made it particularly resistant to classification, especially at the level of class, since while it was anchored in working-class disaffection, it was also spearheaded by figures like Philip Larkin and Kingsley Amis who came from Oxbridge stock, as well as facilitated by organisations like the Royal Shakespeare Company, which became a key nodule for many of its affiliated writers and thinkers. Within that matrix, one of the ways in which this loose collective of men resisted the class system of post-WWII Britain was by conceiving of an essentially incoherent class subject – a working class gentleman, or gentlemanly worker, whose demotic lexicon was used in the service of a fully armed arsenal of knowledge and insight with which to navigate the ossifying impacts of mass media and popular culture. The residues of that working-class gentleman haunt the main characters in Transpotting as well, who might shoot up in the most abject of Edinburgh housing estates, but nevertheless sport a full suit to go down to the pub, and pride themselves on their highbrow command of taste, and performance of cultural capital.
That same defiantly incoherent approach to class also informs Welsh’s own life and aesthetic, since for all the defiant thickness of the novel’s brogue, Welsh has often stated that he identifies more with upper-class life than working-class life, listing Jane Austen and George Eliot amongst his favourite authors. What Transpotting recognises, however, is that the demands and desires of Cool Britannia and New Labour effectively represent the end point of this identity, insofar as they appropriate working-class life for a new middle-class complacency, rather than irreverently pairing it with upper-class affectations. We get hints of this early on in the film, most notably in a comic scene involving an American visitor to the Edinburgh Festival, but it fully ramifies once Rent Boy gets clean and heads to London, where he arrives right in the midst of the Britpop craze. So hegemonic was this version of London in the British imagination at this point in time that Boyle can’t help but provide a brief tour of this new centre of trendiness, Carnaby Street and all, before Rent Boy settles down to make a life for himself selling gentrified properties to new inner-city dwellers. It’s only a matter of time, though, before Spud, Begbie, Tommy and Sick Boy arrive on his doorstep, paving the way for a third act that oscillates, both physically and figuratively, between London and Edinburgh, in a rhythm that corresponds with Rent Boy’s ongoing prevarications about whether to stay clean, or take up heroin, or another drug, once again.
During this third act, Boyle beautifully positions the five friends as the disavowed fringes of Cool Britannia, which may embrace working-class culture, but only to a certain extent. With his thick brogue and inability to fully inhabit the nascent rave scene, it’s immediately clear that Rent Boy’s working-class diction is a bridge too far, since even if he manages to pass for cool, or pass for English, his friends are destined to arrive to bring him back to earth, resulting in a final sequence in which he has to utterly disavow them to have a shot of surviving in London, even as that disavowal seems as impossible as sheeding his own accent, or his own class background, a situation that makes the 2017 sequel almost inevitable. Never quite extricating Scotland from England, or allowing Scottish lad culture to exist independently of the Cool Britannia intent on selectively appropriating it, the film thus inhabits the dialectic that constituted Cool Britannia in the first place, as the very credentials that make Rent Boy so edgy in London also ensure that he can never fit in either, resulting in a picaresque rhythm, undercut with pathos, that often plays as a more specific corrective to Four Weddings and a Funeral, and the version of New Labour Richard Curtis aestheticised. Time and again, the friends allude to the indignity of Scotland being colonised by the English, and yet it’s this imminent cultural colonisation that seems the most traumatic, as they find even their most authentic utterances already appropriated ahead of their arrival.
Given that getting clean is associated with coming to London, and assimilating into this new Britannia, it makes sense that the oscillations between London gradually bring heroin back into the picture, but with a new kind of impotence, as if even the fantasy of resurrecting the gentlemanly working-class subject has now been foreclosed. From Rent Boy’s aborted attempt to start “using” again on a coach en route from Edinburgh to London, to his final theft of twenty thousand pounds that the friends earn by selling heroin to an English businessman, instead of using it themselves, the addictive drive of the opening two acts is gradually distilled into the propulsive forward motion of the nascent techno scene, whose motifs overwhelm the later parts of the film, and then finally subsume the paratactic bursts of cultural capital that punctuate Welsh’s novel into a distended present tense with no capacity to conceptualise past or future. While that space may well recall the “junkie limbo,” it ends up figuring something considerably worse than heroin – an absorption of even the most residual impulses of the Angry Young Men back into the culture they were originally absorbing against, as Rent Boy ends by promising the viewer that “I’m cleaning up and I’m moving on, going straight and choosing life…I’m gonna be just like you.” Like trainspotting itself, even the residues of that gentlemanly working-class persona seem to belong to an unfathomable past, or an unfathomably past conception of what the future could become, in a final sequence that still, somehow, feels set in the present moment twenty years later, if only because it situates the 90s within such a distended and magisterial sense of history.