Trainspotting

Ewan McGregor in The Worst Toilet in Scotland

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

27 September

 

 

Irvine Welsh born, 1958

On this day in 1958, in Leith, Edinburgh, Irvine Welsh was born. Or was he? After a police arrest in 1996, just after fame had hit him like a heroin rush, the police revealed that he was in fact seven years older, so born in 1951. Or 1961, if the BBC’s Writing Scotland website is to be believed. But 1958 is what the author maintains (I say “maintains” though his own website is silent on the subject), so let’s stick with that. After growing up in nearby Muirhouse, Welsh moved to London in the late 1970s at the time of punk, played as a guitarist in a string of gob-spangled bands including Pubic Lice and finally moved back to Edinburgh, where he worked in the council housing department. Remembered as a well dressed young man who never seemed the worse for drugs, he was apparently destined to “go far” in local administration. All the while Welsh was writing short stories, many of which featured in local literary magazines. Trainspotting was his first novel, a tale of drug excess, depravity and skanky humour among a small group of heroin users, delivered in phonetic street-talk. The lack of moral centre, the refusal to be PC and tone it down made it one of those books read by people who don’t read books. Welsh, in effect, became the heir to the New English Library output of Richard Allen whose books (Skinhead, Suedehead etc) had had a similar effect a generation before. Secker and Warburg, his original publishers, were convinced it would never sell – the original print run was 3,000. Well, they were wrong there.

 

 

Trainspotting (1996, dir: Danny Boyle)

“Choose life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a fucking big television.” The soliloquy from Trainspotting, as spoken by Renton (Ewan McGregor), our likeable, voluble, eloquent guide to the more depraved side of Edinburgh life in Danny Boyle’s adaptation of the book. Having popped his head over the critical parapet with Shallow Grave, Boyle was propelled to international renown with Trainspotting, thanks to his ability (and that of screenwriter John Hodge) to safely transfer Irvine Welsh’s high energy, loud humour and foul mouth to the screen intact. With a largely Britpop soundtrack that wasn’t just cool but also appropriate (Iggy Pop, Primal Scream, Underworld, Blur, Leftfield), restless camera and some bravura stunts (Renton diving into The Worst Toilet in Scotland to rescue the opium suppositories), the effect was of a particularly nasty music video, or of a night of druggy excess, now exhilarating, now terrifying. McGregor’s heroin-chic cheekbones sold the film on posters, but great though McGregor’s performance is, Robert Carlyle as the insane Begbie is even better, one of the few instances of menace actually transmitting off the screen and into the audience. People took Trainspotting the film to their hearts the way they had the book, because it dared to say something that goes unsaid – the reason why people take drugs is because they enjoy it, simple as. And let’s not forget how funny it is – as Renton says about the group’s dealer, “We called him Mother Superior on account of the length of his habit.”

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Welsh’s best book, Boyle’s best film
  • Party like it’s 1996
  • A cast largely of unknowns at the start of interesting careers
  • Buckle up for the “Worst Toilet in Scotland” scene

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

 

Trainspotting – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Filth

James McAvoy as the deranged cop Bruce Robertson in Filth

 

 

 

The last film I saw that had any Irvine Welsh involvement was The Magnificent 11, a comedy so peculiarly inept that I started to think it was deliberate, a tax write-off perhaps, or a spoof of depressing British comedies of the early 1970s, in which girls with blue eye-liner would shed an ill-fitting bra to reveal dog-eared breasts.

 

Jon S Baird’s adaptation of Welsh’s 1998 novel is far more what we expect from the writer of Trainspotting. Welsh has been out of fashion just long enough to be due a comeback, but is this what our New Puritan age is clamouring for – the sweary, druggy, skanky story of a very naughty Edinburgh copper?

 

The answer to that question will be weighed by the tonnage of bums on seats. Meanwhile, there’s James McAvoy’s performance to enjoy. It’s a big Oliver Reed man-beast of a turn with McAvoy as the beefy, hairy, bloky Bruce Robertson, a foul-mouthed, bipolar, sweaty Jock copper with stained teeth who is shagging, snorting and bull-charging his way towards a personal and career meltdown.

 

Outside Robertson’s head everything is Miss Jean Brodie by comparison. His fellow officers are capable, sensible, down to earth. There’s John Sessions, all bumptious authority as Robertson’s boss, while Jamie Bell and Imogen Poots are the 21st century cops who know how to bend to political correctness and how to bend it their way, unlike Robertson.

 

At the dusty Masonic meeting all of them routinely attend Robertson hooks in with a tweedy owlish character called Bladesey (Eddie Marsan), an unlikely escort towards the brink. The women in Robertson’s life are Chrissie (Kate Dickie, again heroically getting her kit off for Scotland in some athletic sex scenes), and Bunty (Shirley Henderson), whom Robertson is harassing with sex-pest phone calls, just for the hell of it.

 

With nods to Dennis Potter, when it’s not following Robertson as he ricochets through police duties, Filth plays interior fantasy as exterior reality. Most obviously in Robertson’s scene with a taxi driver (played by David Soul) as the two lip-sync along to Soul’s 1977 hit single Silver Lady while backing singers pop up from the back seat to contribute ooh-ahhs. But there are other hallucinatory episodes, in which Robertson is visited by a crackpot Australian shrink (Jim Broadbent) who goads his patient on to even worse excess. All very Singing Detective and very funny.

 

But never mind the interludes, what drove this big bad man to this pretty pass? You know, I don’t care. And I don’t think Welsh really does either. His main focus is to wind up deluded grotesques and set them off running around causing damage, most particularly to themselves. He’s never been that great at what you might call the comedown, the getout. Luckily, for the most part, what we get here is the good stuff – a violent frothing custodian of the law taunted by visions of people in animal heads as he falls apart in front of our eyes.

 

It is hugely enjoyable. But Filth also insists on being grown up and explaining things. And the more it goes into Robertson’s psychological motivation – his brother’s early death, his wife’s absence from the marital home – the less I enjoyed it. It really is a film of two parts. Part one is kept afloat by Welsh’s funny, fast and sweary energy and McAvoy’s cortisol-burning performance as a Rabelaisian monster doing what the hell he wants and succeeding because he’s smarter and more driven than the others.

 

Part two is the descent. And after the fireworks of part one, the drool and sentimentality of part two is something of a downer. And without a compensating lift in pace elsewhere, it’s not surprising that, at the cinema I saw this at, people started to shift in their seats.

 

A relation of Woody Harrelson’s cop-out-of-time in Rampart, Robertson is a brute, but he’s doing what a lot of us would like to do. He’s behaving badly and he has the wit and the balls to get away with it. As Filth hits the home straight it suddenly asks us – in a “now look, you’ve had your fun” volte-face – to engage emotionally with people we were being encouraged to laugh at only a few minutes before: bored Henderson, timid Marsan, oversexed Dickie, ridiculous Sessions. The first half of Filth is pretty near perfect and, you know, we get it, we know Robertson is not a nice man, the film’s title is more than just an allusion to a nickname for policemen generally. Director Jon Baird keeps faith with the original novel, but he loses sight a little of what has made his film so entertaining. Irvine Welsh isn’t infallible – see The Magnificent 11 for confirmation. Couldn’t the director have just sent the raging Robertson off over a cliff, Thelma and Louise style?

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013