When Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting was released in 1996, many critics condemned it, accusing Boyle of glamorising heroin addiction – but could a film centred on such a serious and prevalent topic ever come close to presenting a true depiction of the reality of addiction? In Trainspotting, Boyle takes an insider’s perspective on the drug scene and reproduces it for cinema, translating the experience into an iconic visual language of countercultural rebellion.

What Boyle achieves is a film that verges on the documentary genre. Renton and the other protagonists almost appear to be real people who consciously invite us into their lives and narrate their thoughts, almost in a pedagogical manner. In the place of the interviews you’d find in a documentary, Renton’s voiceover, sometimes in third person, allows viewers an insight into the inner and outer world of addiction. After he falls onto the floor during the famous ‘Choose life’ scene, Begbie and Tommy address the camera directly, as they express disgust at Renton and drug-addiction, and almost threaten the audience personally, adding to the feeling that the film breaks the borders of its fictitious setting.

Every element of Trainspotting seems to directly engage the audience, in fact. Just as a documentary might give the name of a speaker as they talk to the camera, Trainspotting introduces its protagonists individually as their names appear written over a still of the character, with the implication that their names ground their existence in reality. Point-of-view shots abound; the camera itself becomes one of the protagonists, placing the viewers on the edge of an uncanny sense of presence and participation.

Still from Trainspotting, 1996, directed by Danny Boyle.

Still from Trainspotting, 1996, directed by Danny Boyle.

In 1996, Michiko Kakutani wrote in The New York Times that films such as Boyle’s are simply a “new brand of tourism that offers bourgeois audiences a voyeuristic peep at an alien subculture and lets them go home feeling smug and with it”. Irvine Welsh, author of the original novel, regards his book as addressing a wider problem, however. He says: “By 1983 you had 3.6 million unemployed […] a lot of people with a lot of time on their hands.” And these were “people who wouldn't normally be involved in the heroin scene, […] It was just people who didn't have a f**king clue.”

Boyle placed his protagonists within the context of the turbulent Edinburgh of the time, having them borrow the spirit of an entire generation. Suffering from the decline of the manufacturing industry in the 1980s, the working-class characters of Welsh’s novel represent the product of Thatcherism and mass unemployment. The concept of masculinity in Scotland underwent a period of transition, leading Welsh’s emasculated protagonist, Renton, to turn to drugs and a life of unemployment and misconduct. Boyle’s Edinburgh, representative of Scotland as a whole, is characterised by criminal activity, reflecting the reality of the city, still recognisable 20 years on.

Still from Trainspotting, 1996, directed by Danny Boyle.

Still from Trainspotting, 1996, directed by Danny Boyle.

Boyle’s long-awaited sequel to Trainspotting, which is due for release this coming January, is likely to maintain an equal sense of authenticity. Garry Fraser, a Scottish former addict, who won a BAFTA award in 2013 for his documentary, Everybody’s Child, has been given the role of second unit director, demonstrably an indication of Boyle’s commitment to Welsh’s original works and, ultimately, his respect for drug addiction recovery.

Words: Alice Tuffery

Copy edited by Elena Stanciu