Ever wanted to bypass the norms of society and choose your own lifestyle? Here’s one way of achieving it:
“Choose Life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a fucking big television, choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players and electrical tin openers. Choose good health, low cholesterol, and dental insurance. Choose fixed interest mortgage repayments. Choose a starter home. Choose your friends. Choose leisurewear and matching luggage. Choose a three-piece suit on hire purchase in a range of fucking fabrics. Choose DIY and wondering who the fuck you are on Sunday morning. Choose sitting on that couch watching mind-numbing, spirit-crushing game shows, stuffing fucking junk food into your mouth. Choose rotting away at the end of it all, pissing your last in a miserable home, nothing more than an embarrassment to the selfish, fucked up brats you spawned to replace yourselves. Choose your future. Choose life… But why would I want to do a thing like that? I chose not to choose life. I chose somethin’ else. And the reasons? There are no reasons. Who needs reasons when you’ve got heroin?”
Best opening to any movie? That monologue by Mark Renton, played by Ewan McGregor, over Iggy Pop’s classic Lust for Life (well chosen) and Renton’s gang out having a ball and running away from officialdom en route for another hit of skag isn’t everyone’s idea of fun but it sure makes the audience sit up and take notice.
Irvine Welsh‘s novel tackles every aspect of heroin addiction amongst Scottish low-life head-on, and Danny Boyle‘s adaptation pulls no punches – it fizzes with invention, every horror you can imagine, then some, and tackles the truth that no government health campaign ever dare touch: why people do it. This is a potent and vivid anti-drugs story, but in order to get to that point it starts by recognising that those doing smack do so because they gain incredible pleasure from a fix.
“People think it’s all about misery and desperation and death and all that shite, which is not to be ignored. But what they forget is the pleasure of it. Otherwise we wouldn’t do it. After all, we’re not fucking stupid. At least, we’re not that fucking stupid. Take the best orgasm you ever had, multiply it by a thousand and you’re still nowhere near it. When you’re on junk you have only one worry: scoring. When you’re off it you are suddenly obliged to worry about all sorts of other shite. Got no money: can’t get pissed. Got money: drinking too much. Can’t get a bird: no chance of a ride. Got a bird: too much hassle. You have to worry about bills, about food, about some football team that never fucking wins, about human relationships and all the things that really don’t matter when you’ve got a sincere and truthful junk habit.”
In fact, let’s not beat around the bush here:
Allison: It beats any meat injection. That beats any fucking cock in the world.
This movie takes you on a journey both darkly funnier and scarier than any big dipper. You see the smack cooking, the shot in a vein, the moment the fix hits the brain, everything the addict sees. But then we see the constipation and its aftermath, the lust for just one more fix, the terrifying effects of cold turkey and OD, the “clean” character Tommy falling apart and dying of an appalling AIDS-related illness, courtesy of a dirty needle. We see images of the lifestyle that will stay with us: Renton diving into the most disgusting toilet to get his opium suppositories; Renton’s hallucination of the dead baby crawling across the ceiling; and, inevitably, the sad faces of doctors and nurses in A&E as a comatose Renton is brought around, probably not for the first time; in fact, the is a portrayal of the lifestyle descended from lower-middle class Edinburgh that most people hope never to encounter.
The inspired script also says a lot about Scottish culture and the depressed state of the economy. Who could forget Renton’s damnation of his own nation?
Mark “Rent-boy” Renton: It’s SHITE being Scottish! We’re the lowest of the low. The scum of the fucking Earth! The most wretched, miserable, servile, pathetic trash that was ever shat into civilisation. Some hate the English. I don’t. They’re just wankers. We, on the other hand, are COLONISED by wankers. Can’t even find a decent culture to be colonized BY. We’re ruled by effete assholes. It’s a SHITE state of affairs to be in, Tommy, and ALL the fresh air in the world won’t make any fucking difference!
Then there are the characters: Renton’s gang includes the insipid time-waster Spud (Ewan Bremner), the exuberant Connery-loving Sick Boy (Johnny Lee Miller, an inspired sassanach choice to play a Scot), psychotic Begbie (Robert Carlyle utterly terrifying and totally convincing), the comparatively normal Tommy (Kevin McKidd), plus the under-age lover Diane (Kelly Macdonald‘s big screen debut.) In fact, everywhere you look there are larger-than-life characters and further members of the Scottish repertory company. How about Peter Mullan, who did such a sterling job as the dad in Sunshine on Leith turning up as the drug dealer “known as Mother Superior on account of the length of his habit.” Even Welsh himself bags a small role and looks like he’s having a ball!
The actors are off the wall but tell their stories in such a vibrant and flamboyant fashion that you couldn’t fail to spot them in a crowd. Each in their own way contributes to the narrative, but it is Renton’s tale, and he is the ultimate survivor from the group, the one who goes straight and determines to kick the habit once and for all, where, for example, Spud looks like being a loser all his life, Sick Boy is intent on being a pusher and a pimp, Begbie will end up in prison and Tommy is dead.
This is a remarkable film of a remarkable (and almost unreadable) novel, a film aimed at cult status that went well wide of its mark and became mainstream, not by virtue of its subject matter but by the quality of script, direction and acting, not forgetting sheer entertainment value. Quite apart from the subject matter and harrowing scenes, it is a corker of a movie, quite irresistible and totally compelling.
Make no mistake, its 10th place on the BFI’s list of all-time great British films is no accident, any more than its rating as the best-ever Scottish film in a poll of Scottish people. Whether it’s your sort of thing or not, I urge you to see it if you haven’t already done so.