Trainspotting (Danny Boyle, 1996)

Adapted from Irvine Welsh’s novel of the same name (Welsh 1994), Trainspotting follows the lives of a group of friends in Edinburgh: the heroin addicts Renton, Spud, Sick Boy, Tommy, and the violent Begbie. Trainspotting has been held up as an example of a ‘new Scottish cinema,’ which leaves behind the stereotypes of tartanry and kailyardism imposed by filmmakers from outside the region, embraces urban and contemporary Scotland, and is the product of a definitively Scottish film industry. However, Trainspotting presents a number of challenges to the ideal of a Scottish cinema and the Scottishness that it represents that have been proposed by critics such as Martin McLoone (2001) and Colin McArthur (1982). In Ewa Mazierska and Laura Rascaroli’s opinion, Trainspotting ‘not only breaks with many traits typical of earlier cinematic representations of Scotland, but also demonstrates the difficulties of constructing a discourse conveying a new Scottish identity, which is meant to replace the old Tartan and Kailyard stereotypes’ (2003: 186). In this post I argue that these difficulties are overcome by Renton’s acceptance of a British identity that does not eradicate his Scottishness.

Though the film principally follows Renton’s attempts to quit heroin and to escape the negative influence of his ‘friends,’ it also tracks Tommy, Spud, and Sick Boy and links the characters through interweaving storylines. In allowing different versions the same story to be told the film shifts narrators: for example, in the telling of the different versions of the fight at the pool hall the film shifts between Renton’s narration of life among the group, Begbie’s self-serving recollection, and Tommy’s own memory. Diane also takes on a narrative role as a letter writer. The night-club sequence in Edinburgh crosscuts between Tommy and Spud’s, and Lizzie and Gail’s differing versions of the same conversations, and at the end of the night the syuzhet splits to follow three couples (Renton and Diane, Tommy and Lizzie, Spud and Gail) as they embark on their ill-fated sexual adventures. Unlike the other films discussed here, the group is shown as highly fragmented, leaving the unifying space of the night-club as they go their separate ways, and this highlights Renton’s alienation from his own surroundings. In the night-club he is shown standing to one side of the room while his friends mix on the dance floor, and the highly conscious use of Renton as narrator emphasises his distance from his peers:

The situation was becoming serious. Young Renton noticed the haste with which the successful in the sexual sphere, as in all others, segregated themselves from the failures. Heroin had robbed Renton of his sex drive but now it returned with a vengeance. And as the impotence of those days faded into memory, grim desperation took a hold in his sex-crazed mind. His post-junk libido fuelled buy alcohol and amphetamine taunted him remorselessly with his own unsatisfied desire – dot, dot, dot.

This voice-over heightens Renton’s isolation by having him refer to himself in the third person, and also its literary quality, with the emphasis placed on the spoken ellipsis, signals his dual role as both a participant in the narrative action and as an observer looking in from the outside. The duration of this sequence is clearly indicated, moving from the night-club to the next morning, but in general Trainspotting lacks a defined time frame. For example, we do not know what the duration of the fabula is, how long Renton has been in London, or the amount of time that passes between Tommy experimenting with heroin and his death. Though the syuzhet is basically linear, with some flashbacks and some flashforwards, the structure of the film is episodic. The pool hall sequence, for example, jumps from the present to Begbie’s version of the past, to the future in which Tommy gives his version of events, and back to the present without specifying how much time has passed between the three elements of this sequence.

Like the hybrid films Sarah Street (1997) identifies as being ‘British’ in the 1980s, Trainspotting also cuts across genres mixing realism with fantasy, offering the characters what Murray Smith describes as ‘the redemption of material impoverishment through aesthetic transformation.’ In Smith’s view, the film ‘depicts poverty realistically, but in a way that encompasses the possibility of escape as well as entrapment,’ and in exploiting the aesthetics of film draws ‘a kind of vitality from grinding poverty’ (2002: 33). However, this redemption through aesthetics is not achievable in Scotland and is only fulfilled in the film’s London sequences. The episode in ‘the worst toilet in Scotland’ exposes the distance between Renton’s fantasy and his reality. Entering the rear of the betting shop he imagines a ‘massive pristine convenience. Brilliant gold taps, virginal white marble, a seat carved from ebony, a cistern full of Chanel No. 5, and a flunky handing me pieces of raw silk toilet roll.’ What he actually finds is far from this ideal image, and the sheer ugliness of the toilet is contrasted with the lagoon Renton enters into to recover his opium suppositories. Later, the film uses this distinction between the real and the unreal to represent the horror of Renton’s withdrawal. In Scotland fantasy is related to the use of heroin as a means of transforming the dullness of the real world into heightened sensory experience, but what redemption may be achieved is only temporary, and can be equally euphoric or traumatic. In London this heightened sensory experience is manifest in the depiction of the city as an ideal space, and with its fast cutting, pumping soundtrack, bright colours, and excess of information made available to the viewer the film provides the sensory overload that has previously been associated with heroin. Unlike heroin, the redemption offered by London is permanent and without drawbacks.

Scottishness is not displayed in an ostentatious way, and it has been noted that Trainspotting fails to display the tourist attractions of Edinburgh on screen (Street 1997: 197-199). Instead, Scottishness is portrayed as something that is banal. Michael Billig has developed the idea of banal nationalism to,

cover the ideological habits which enable the established nations of the West to be reproduced. … these habits are not removed from everyday life, as some observers have supposed. Daily, the nation is indicated, or ‘flagged,’ in the lives of its citizenry. Nationalism, far from being an intermittent mood in established nations, is the endemic condition (Billig 1995: 6).

Billig argues that in established nations, the ‘metonymic image of banal nationalism is not a flag which is being consciously waved with a fervent passion; it is the flag hanging unnoticed on the public building’ (Billig 1995: 8). In Trainspotting it is the regional identity of Scotland that is represented as being banal, and this stands in stark contrast to the hot nationalism – ‘an extraordinary, emotional mood striking at extraordinary times’ (Billig 1995: 44) – of Britishness that is evident in the exhibitionist display of London later in the film.

The regional specificity of the film is established through the Scottish accents of the characters and the subtle use of mise-en-scène. The characters converse in Scottish accents and Scottish slang, and in the night-club sequence in Scotland Spud and Tommy’s conversation is subtitled, emphasising its distinctiveness and the difficulty non-Scottish audiences have in understanding Scottish accents. When Tommy describes Lizzie’s anger at him forgetting her birthday, he states that she was upset ‘big time, absolutely fuckin’ raj,’ but this is subtitled as ‘very.’ The five-a-side game at the beginning of the film sees Renton and Begbie wearing green and white shirts in homage to one of the Edinburgh teams, Hibernian, and as Renton endures his horrific withdrawal Hibs pennants and rosettes adorn the walls of his bedroom. This clearly indicates that the characters share their allegiance with a particular part of Edinburgh and that they are a part of the city’s catholic community, but the value of this allegiance is doubtful. The shabby state of their kit echoes their economic marginalisation and low-rent lifestyle, and this is juxtaposed with the considerably more talented and more organised opposition in their blue kit. Significantly, Begbie’s Hibs shirt is a replica in the style of the 1960s, and in reflecting the mid-1990s craze for ‘classic’ football shirts this links him to a nostalgic vision of the past. The childish nature of Renton’s room, being at his parent’s home with its train-patterned wallpaper, indicates that Renton is stuck in his youth. Taken together this suggests that Scottishness is holding Renton back. Smith (2002: 24) notes that Renton’s replacement of Tommy’s sex tape with a football video links the passion for football with sexual ecstasy, but Renton’s observation that he has not felt that good since Archie Gemmill scored against Holland in the 1978 World Cup suggests that Scottish glories lie in the past. Renton, Begbie, et al. cannot escape the Scottishness that is a part of their everyday existence, but that Scottishness is represented as economically poor, infantalising, and trapped in a nostalgic discourse of popular culture in Scotland. Heroin represents an escape from this life: it is Renton’s forced withdrawal that returns him to his childhood bedroom, and, as he states, there is no need to worry about ‘some football team that never fuckin’ wins’ when you’ve got heroin. Heroin represents an escape from Scotland, and unlike most of the films here, the source of Renton’s alienation is not London but is the idea of Scottishness itself in the 1980s. In fact, Renton’s observation that the ‘downside of coming off junk was I knew I would have to mix with my friends again, in a state of full consciousness,’ and his decision to take one final hit on the way to the big drug deal in the company of Spud, Sick Boy, and Begbie suggests that heroin is the only way with which he can cope with Scottishness.

The idea of a Scottish national identity is challenged throughout the film. The ‘official’ tourist ideal of Scotland is removed from the everyday experiences of the characters, and Renton expresses the rejection of ‘official’ Scotland in the film’s most famous sequence as he, Tommy, Spud, and Sick Boy visit the highlands. Gesturing to the mountain, Tommy appeals to their sense of national pride (Figure 1):

Tommy: Doesn’t it make you proud to be Scottish?

Renton: It’s shite being Scottish. We’re the lowest of the low; the scum o’ the fuckin’ earth. The most wretched, miserable, servile, pathetic trash that was ever shat into civilisation. Some people hate the English – I don’t, they’re just wankers. We on the other hand were colonised by wankers; can’t even find a decent culture to be colonised by. We’re ruled by effete arseholes; it’s a shite state of affairs to be in, Tommy, and all the fresh air in the world won’t make any fuckin’ difference.

In Edinburgh the addicts typically walk from one place to another, but to reach the highlands they take a train and this shows that it is a part of Scotland that is physically removed from their lives and that an exceptional effort has to be made. The strangeness of this environment is evident in Sick Boy’s demands for instruction on arrival (‘Now What?’), and his shock at Tommy’s suggestion they go for a walk (‘Are you serious?’). The silence and tranquillity of the Scottish mountains is a feature of advertising campaigns to attract tourists to Scotland, and in this context represents ‘hot’ nationalism masquerading as the everyday. However, Spud’s observation that the landscape is ‘not natural’ signals the remoteness of this idea of Scotland from the housing scheme the characters inhabit in Edinburgh, and points to the fact that ‘Scotland’ is a construction that marginalises many Scots. In one sequence an American tourist enters a pub, and asks to use the toilet and simply assumes their compliance without waiting for a reply. Once in the toilet he is repeatedly assaulted and robbed, and the value of tourism to the Scottish economy is to be found, as far as Renton and Begbie are concerned, in the opportunity for crime to fuel their addictions.

Figure 1 ‘Doesn’t it make you proud to be Scottish?’ The tourist vision of Scotland that is rejected by Renton

As Renton and Spud run through the streets of Edinburgh having shoplifted from John Menzies they pass in front of the National Gallery of Scotland. By dividing the screen aesthetically, a long shot represents the relationship between the life of the Renton and Spud, and of ‘official’ Scotland as being distinct and separate: the gallery stands impassive in the background, static and oblivious to the action before it, while the two addicts sprint across the foreground. The vertical columns of the gallery echo the vertical lines of the title shot, of the flats as Renton walks to the betting shop, and of the group as tourists in the Highlands and the mountain itself. In all these sequences the horizontal cuts across the vertical, indicating that Renton’s life is on a different axis, and the static, frontal camera further suggests that this state of affairs will not (can not?) change.

Whether it is the heroin addicts, Begbie’s pursuit of violence for its own sake, or Renton’s mother, whose use of valium renders her a ‘socially acceptable’ addict, everyone in Trainspotting is addicted to something. It is something that is endemic to Scotland, and Scottishness itself may be interpreted as an addiction, which like heroin affords a means of escaping the reality of the council estates, underemployment, and social exclusion. The un-naturalness of the highlands is one example of how the ‘real’ problems of Scotland may be elided through an unquestioned belief in an image of Scotland. The addictive quality of Scottishness is also evident in Sick Boy’s obsession with Sean Connery as James Bond, which as Renton observes is hardly a substitute for the former’s lack of moral fibre. At one point, Sick Boy plays the role of heroin addict as secret agent with his works concealed in the heel of his shoe. Connery, as a signifier of Scottishness, is shown to be inherently corrupt, and in Sick Boy’s opinion is not to be viewed as inherently better to the rest of Edinburgh but as a part of the same world. He rejects the hypothesis that Ursula Andress represents Connery’s superiority, arguing that ‘if she’s shagged one punter from Edinburgh, she shagged the whole fucking lot of us.’ Sick Boy venerates Connery but it doing so he debases Connery’s iconic power by reducing him to just another ‘punter’ from Edinburgh.

Renton’s ultimate escape from heroin and from Scottishness lies in London. The representation of London is stylistically excessive: where there is an absence of images of Edinburgh we are treated to a deluge of images of London. The capital is represented through a series of tourist images (Tower Bridge, Carnaby Street, Piccadilly Circus, Trafalgar Square), and the use of the familiar signifiers of Britishness (black cabs, London buses). The representation of London is not constructed along the lines of the vertical and the horizontal that we have become used to in representing Edinburgh: Big Ben and Nelson’s Column jut in from the side of the screen at unusual angles, and rather than remaining static the camera twists and move around these well-known landmarks so that they are at once familiar and exotic (Figure 2). Unlike the relentless gloom of Edinburgh, London is shown in bright daylight; and where the former is dominated by a grey and brown colour scheme the latter is dominated by the vivid of red of the buses or the doorman’s coat and the metallic shine of the Lloyd’s building. This sequence represents an image of a British city that is marked by its multiculturalism, and includes shots Pearly Kings and Queens, tourists, a group of bikers, and of a black man playing a steel drum. This last shot implies that in modern Britain issues of colonisation can be overcome to create an inclusive community that inhabits a single space. Similarly, there is also a place for distinctive subcultures (the bikers), and the shots of the Pearly King and Queen places them on a London bus indicating that the distinctive regional cultures of the UK can be accommodated within the nation. Whereas Edinburgh is marked by its cultural homogeneity – all the Scottish characters are of the same ethnic and class grouping, and all hail from the same council estate on the margins of the city, London is a hybrid city. It is also a unified city – in the absence shots of the city from the air or panoramic views from the city’s highpoints Trainspotting does not define the overall space of Edinburgh, whereas the map that dominates the wall of the estate agents gives us a sense of the size and scale of London as a single entity.

Figure 2 Big Ben juts into the screen at an unusual angle

The image of Britishness that we are presented with is one that is open to all forms of identity, even Scottishness – Renton simply moves to London and gets a job with apparently no trouble at all. Despite his Scottish accent, he has no trouble in being understood. Renton takes a job as an estate agent, and this has two significant aspects. First, he is engaged in the selling of space. Unlike Edinburgh, where Renton’s experience of interior spaces is through squalor, drug use, faeces, boredom, and terror, as an estate agent he emphasises the positive aspects of London spaces and the opportunities they offer. Even his name, Renton, implies an intimate connection with the appropriation of space as aspirational. Second, he is shown to be participating and benefiting from the 1980s property boom. Trainspotting is thus perhaps only the second British film, alongside Chariots of Fire (Hugh Hudson, 1981), to present a favourable image of the United Kingdom in the Thatcher era. Renton’s experiences as a drug addict are even beneficial to him in London: he describes addiction as a ‘full-time business,’ though this business consists of breaking into cars, stealing televisions for elderly care homes, shoplifting, and mugging tourists, and one of the attractions of life in London is that it requires the same skills of cheating and scamming. In presenting an image of London that is very different to the idea that Scotland is ruled by ‘effete arseholes,’ the narrow view of Scottish nationalism is revealed to be based on a misconception of the English, whose openness contradicts their colonising image. This openness is founded on the recognition of diversity and the possibility of integrating this diverse community into a wider identity of Britishness.

The backward provincialism of Scottishness is evident once Sick Boy and Begbie arrive at Renton’s flat in London. They represent the dead-end vision of Scotland that Renton is trying to escape. The presence of Begbie restricts Renton’s ability to ‘choose life:’ ‘The guy’s a psycho, but it’s true – he’s a mate and all, so what can you do.’ Sick Boy sells Renton’s television, the symbol of his decision to choose life. The tribal identification of the group of addicts has become a hindrance and prevents Renton from improving his life. The film plays on the cliché of the provincial boy (Begbie) arriving in the big city, picking up a beautiful woman, only to find to his disgust that ‘she’ turns out to be a transvestite. Unlike Begbie, who remains trapped in the ‘glorious’ past of Archie Gemmill’s Scotland, Renton has moved on and recognises the exciting possibilities of living in a city that his home to a fluid, hybrid, and multicultural community. He states that, ‘the world is changing. Music is changing. Drugs are changing. Even men and women are changing. One thousand years from now they’ll be no guys and no girls – just wankers. Sounds great to me.’ The observation that in the future they will be ‘just wankers’ raises the issue of his ‘shite being Scottish’ rant. The earlier sequence has been interpreted as a wholesale rejection of both Scottishness and Englishness, but Renton’s observation that such a future sounds great sees him reject Englishness as a force of colonialism and accept the multicultural Britishness of London.

Renton’s decision at the end of the film to rip off his ‘friends’ marks his final acceptance of Britishness. He initially tries to isolate himself from the world, again returning to the interior world of the heroin addict, and claims that there ‘was no such thing as society, and even if there was I most certainly had nothing to do with it,’ but he is soon becoming integrated into London life. Sick Boy asks Renton if he wants to sell his passport, which the latter immediately refuses and feels sufficiently threatened by to place his passport in a storage locker. In protecting his passport he protects his British identity and his means of escaping the Scotland Sick Boy and Begbie represent. Renton’s use of heroin to escape Scotland is thus replaced with his acceptance of Britishness. At the end of the film, London is presented in the early morning haze as Renton flees his friends for the last time, and this shot gives an impressionistic view of the capital that recalls Claude Monet’s paintings of Charing Cross Bridge. Prior to this, subjective shots have been associated with heroin, as in Renton’s overdose and withdrawal, and though this is a shot that shows Renton the use of the voice-over clearly indicates that this reflects his new approach to life. He walks away from his previous life in Scotland for the final time, but he cannot abandon his Scottishness, and his decision to enter into the community, to ‘choose life’ and to ‘be like you’ is announced in a Scottish accent. Smith writes that the ending to Trainspotting is ambivalent: ‘No wonder Renton is smiling: he wins on all fronts, being both decent (sensitive and compassionate) and ‘bad’ (smart, hip and self-assertive) – that is, good and thus admirable to both mainstream and countercultural criteria’ (Smith 2002: 51). He argues that Renton is an ‘anti-hero’ whose heroism is derived from rejecting a ‘false’ set of values (Smith 2002: 46). In this section I have argued that Renton rejects the ‘false’ values of an isolating Scottish identity symbolised by the irrelevance of ‘official’ Scotland and the self-destructive provincialism of Begbie without losing his natural Scottishness. Renton chooses to reinterpret the banality of his Scottish identity in the context of ‘hot’ Britishness nationalism, and as he walks across the Thames in the morning sun he emerges from the darkness Scotland into the light of Britishness as both a Scot and Briton.


Billig M 1995 Banal Nationalism. London: Sage.

Mazierska E and Rascaroli L 2003 From Moscow to Madrid: Postmodern Cities, European Cinema. London and New York: I.B. Tauris.

McArthur C 1982 Scotland and cinema: the iniquity of the fathers, in C McArthur (ed.) Scotch Reels: Scotland in Cinema and Television. London: BFI: 40-69.

McLoone M 2002 Challenging colonial traditions: British cinema in the Celtic fringe, Cineaste 26 (4): 51-54.

Smith M 2002 Trainspotting. London: BFI.

Street S 1997 British National Cinema. London: Routledge.

Welsh I 2004 Trainspotting. London: Minerva.

About Nick Redfern

I am an independent academic with over 15 years experience teaching film in higher education in the UK. I have taught film analysis, film industries, film theories, film history, science fiction at Manchester Metropolitan University, the University of Central Lancashire, and Leeds Trinity University, where I was programme leader for film from 2016 to 2020. My research interests include computational film analysis, horror cinema, sound design, science fiction, film trailers, British cinema, and regional film cultures.

Posted on March 18, 2010, in British Cinema, Film Analysis, Film Studies, Regionalism, Scottish Cinema and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Great article, really elucidated Boyle’s attention to detail in the film for me, thanks!

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