Danny Boyle: Best of British
Compile a list of the best British movies of the 1990s, there is every reason to think that Trainspotting would be up there in the top three. Indeed, in 1999, when the British Film Institute polled film-makers and scholars for the top 100 Brit films ever, Trainspotting was the only 90s movie to make the Top 20 (it came in at 10).
I remember the excitement seeing it for the first time in a small Soho preview theatre, late in 1995 - along with assorted members of Blur, who had contributed to the epochal Britpop soundtrack. It wasn't so much that it struck me as a great film, necessarily, but it seemed urgent and contemporary and new, absolutely on the pulse in a way that British cinema doesn't manage very often.
An impish, unpretentious Mancunian who always exudes boundless energy and curiosity, Danny Boyle had told me about the project when I interviewed him about Shallow Grave the year before, and I had gone out and read the Irvine Welsh novel on his recommendation - then visited the set in an old cigarette factory in Glasgow.
So I was primed to some extent, but then again, I've visited the sets of plenty of movies that looked good on paper but failed to come together on screen - Boyle's next film, A Life Less Ordinary, would be an example: the script was wildly original and very funny, the casting seemed perfect, all the key Trainspotting crew members were back in place… and then you watch it and think, what were they thinking?
In any case, no one was expecting Trainspotting to be all that. Boyle and his producer Andrew Macdonald had resolved to keep the budget down below 2 million pounds because they felt there was a limited audience for a drug film, and made a pact to keep the running time down to 90 minutes, because they knew there wasn't a plot to speak of.
In retrospect those two decisions were crucial: the modest budget allowed them to make the film they wanted to without compromise (including, of course, the dangerous notion that people take drugs because they enjoy them); and the running time dictated the film's compacted, adrenaline-fuelled dynamic.
These days, after we've all seen Requiem for a Dream and Fight Club (not to mention A Life Less Ordinary and The Beach) Trainspotting may not carry quite the same charge it did in 96 - but it's certainly funnier than either of them, and remember, this one was ours. British cinema in the mid 90s was still dominated by the twin traditions of social realism (Ken Loach and Mike Leigh) and period literary adaptation (Merchant Ivory).
Trainspotting had an energy and style to match anything coming out of America. 'Come in Hollywood, your time is up!' proclaimed Empire magazine in an outburst of jingoistic fervour - no matter than Danny Boyle wasn't shy about his admiration for the Coen brothers and Martin Scorsese. (In turn, Trainspotting probably influenced more British filmmakers than anything in recent memory. 'It's the new cinema!' Shekar Kapur enthused on the set of Elizabeth.)
An intuitive artist, Boyle's always been drawn to genre filmmaking, choosing to make movies for the multiplex and not the art house - but at the same time he's turned down lucrative offers to work in the US, electing to stick with Andrew Macdonald and British screenwriters: John Hodge (the first four), Alex Garland (28 Days Later; Sunshine), and Frank Cottrell Boyce (Millions).
If you can blame some of the unevenness of his career (and even individual films) on his reliance on other people's scripts, it's Boyle's determination not to sell out and become another cog in the Hollywood machine that safeguards his peculiar, slightly askew vision. He's always looking to push a scene in an unexpected direction, to tweak our preconceptions or just throw some dazzle at tired eyes. He's impatient with realism - he's too bold, inquisitive and playful for that discipline (there's a touch of ADD about a Danny Boyle film).
His films are high-wire acts and when they work it's like he's juggling on a unicycle with a plate spinning on his forehead. Of course he falls flat sometimes too. But what a relief to have at least one British filmmaker who puts his faith in images, and tries to show us a little something extra. He's a dreamer. We could use more of them.
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