TRAINSPOTTING (UK, 1996) ***
"England and America are two countries divided by a common language. " Never has this been so true as in "Trainspotting, " even though the US release is said to have been partly or fully redubbed. The film, set mostly among low-class to lower-middle class people in Edinburgh's suburb of Leith, is not spoken in the often colorful, singsong Scottish burr but in a slang that most of us will find from 50 to 75 percent impenetrable, although the almost constant voice-over by the main character, Mark, is relatively clear. The story, however, does come through in its essentials, especially as the younger people who do all the talking do not drop literary gems in the process. This is filmmaking at the opposite pole of Masterpiece Theatre.
Still, I am sorry I didn't see the picture at the Cannes Festival, where it was a most sought-after film among the not competing titles. It was subtitled in French, which means that, ironically, a lot more French people than Americans have gotten the details of dialogues or monologues. There is a short subtitled stretch in "Trainspotting, " but that's in a conversation inside a dance-hall where the din is deafening.
The movie is about a group of mostly male friends and co-addicts. Not all, however shoot up. If I understood the goings-on correctly, one pal is clean, another (the violent Begbie) is addicted to drink. Overall though, and no matter what type of addiction, heroin reigns supreme, with its grunge, its glum, its filthy rooms populated mostly by syringes and needles--plus a baby who is neglected.
But then everything else is neglected. The Big H has taken over, has made its victims victimize others (thefts and other crimes) to sustain the habit. A familiar story, rendered unfamiliar up to a point by merciless, harrowing depictions that have little or none of the sentimentality of many other drug movies.
The movie has been a runaway hit in the UK, where it has been repeatedly compared to "A Clockwork Orange" and where it has caused controversies --one criticism being that it does not condemn drugs.
It does not, indeed, not in a preaching way, but it still is powerfully anti-drugs simply by showing what happens to its habituees. On the other hand, while it shows, abundantly, the symptoms, it does not go to the causes --something far more difficult to do and necessitating much more than a mere 93 minutes. There is even a cop-out when Mark says "Who needs reasons when you've got heroin?" -- dumb, dead-end reasoning. And Mark (or one of the group) comes up with the praise of heroin: "Take the best orgasm you ever had, multiply by a thousand, and you're still nowhere near. "
Reasons, however, are given. They are in the deja vu, rebel-without-a-cause tradition. Mark gives us the classic, ironic anti-bourgeois-life cause. "Choose life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose good health, low cholesterol and dental insurance. Choose fixed-interest mortgage repayments. "
The film is at its best when portraying the friends, their milieu, their drug and sexual adventures (there's an instant pickup of a too-young Catholic school girl that flashes right away to sex), and the surrealism of their hallucinations. The most notable one is when a man goes to the "Worst Toilet in Scotland, " drops in by mistake a couple of capsules, then plunges in after them in a nightmarish scene that takes him underwater. Next best (?) is when Mark, who has overdosed, is taken to Emergency then back to his parents' home, where, in his bed he gets frightening shakes, sweats, chills and visions.
After a test for AIDS, he says "I'm the luckiest of men. I'm HIV negative in the middle of an epidemic. " He then decides to stay clean. But wait. . . Next, he looks for "something new" which is a respectable job in London. Here the movie fails in its intent. There's a rather sudden transition to Mark in London, walking about the City in a correct business suit, looking like a neat and healthy employee of whatever business it is, and saying in voice-over "For the first time in my life I was almost content. "
The way this was presented is so gauche that I thought it was another figment of Mark's imagination --but it was not. Then back in the saddle again, Mark and Co. get in n a deal to buy smack from some Russian sailors and resell it. They asked for 20, 000 pounds, got 16, 000. Pretty good, and pretty well filmed. So is the testing of the smack by Mark who gets hooked again, but, at the end, in a realistic illustration of "No honor among thieves" sneaks away with the wherewithal to be voluntarily co-opted by the bourgeois life he had so despised.
There's more to this film than I can reveal but essentially, its strength is in the dispassionate way it documents the life of those "unfortunates" who, had they been alcoholics instead, I would have called them "sediment. " There are some injections of humor that may or may not work for you.
Within the plethora of "Addiction of the Month" theatrical and TV movies, "Trainspotting" stands as "Addiction of the Year. " I wish, for comparison, that I had the time to see again a fierce competitor, the excellent "Panic in Needle Park" (USA, 1971) by Jerry Schatzberg, Al Pacino's second feature and his explosive entrance in the Great Actors class.
The movie's cryptic title refers to the British hobby of standing by passing trains and collecting the numbers on locomotives. This may be taken as an addiction, a useless habit. Stupid perhaps, but at least, benign.