Duncan Pelham

Does Danny Boyle have a tendency to glamourise squalor and degradation?

New statistics show that in recent years drug-related deaths in the Scottish capital are on the rise. 574 people died from such causes in Scotland last year – over double the death rate a decade ago. This is the ‘trainspotting generation’, a number of aging heroin addicts from the late 90s who have failed to shrug the lethal drug. Some say their association with Danny Boyle’s 1996 Trainspotting film is just an irreverent pop-culture reference. Others, however, point to a more condemnatory relationship. The Trainspotting screen adaption, unlike Irvine Welsh’s positively dank portrait of Scottish junkies, brought the novel’s dismal depiction screaming to life with a jovial and glamorous face-lift.

Before Pete Doherty and Kate Moss stumbled onto our tabloids’ pages – elegant and skeletal in equal measures, a dark magnetism emanating from their sallow yet sultry eyes – the term ‘heroin chic’ could perhaps be traced back to the glossy film-rendering of Trainspotting. The iconic film poster presents a line-up of strangely alluring junkies. Our protagonist, a young Ewan McGregor (Renton), shivers in a tight, short-cut vintage tshirt and skinny grey jeans – an attire that wouldn’t look out of place in a modish indie gig.

There’s no denying the characters are supposed to look cool – a sort of vacant, apathetic cool. But the gritty, humorous and sexual allure of Trainspotting provides its timelessness: the endlessly quotable dialogue (tinged with self-loathing and regret) as well as its astute social insights into the repetitive patterns of a decaying world. When stealing his mother’s Valium, in an aside, Renton observes the frustrating familial cycle of drug addiction: “my mother is… in her own domestic and socially acceptable way, also a drug addict.” And the electrifying soundtrack coupled with Boyle’s slick editing only serves to highlight the enthralling nature of heroin – to present it otherwise would be to lie.

Similar accusations were levelled at Boyle’s latest film, Slumdog Millionare, this time for glamorising poverty. Boyle’s camera exuded a palette of lively yellows, reds and browns – a beautiful cinematic sight – while his thrilling and adventurous portrayal of slum-life was condemned. But, again, to deny the energy and vivacity of slum life would be wrong. It is ultimately a tale in the Dickensian fashion, of chance and fate: more of a fairytale than a social commentary on Mumbia poverty.

There are inevitably those who are sucked in by Trainspotting’s stylishness, or outraged by the shameless gloss of Slumdog Millionaire. But then there always will be. Scarface’s Tony Montana is embedded in gangster culture – lauded by many as a hero, rather than appreciated as an allegory of capitalist greed.

Boyle’s greatest achievement was, and still remains, Trainspotting. He painted a vivid – and often horrifying – portrait of drug addiction, while also providing an entertaining piece of cult cinema: something he should not have to apologise for.

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