You can take me higher...
TRAINSPOTTING Danny Boyle (18) SENSE AND SENSIBILITY Ang Lee (U); Two films, one heritage. But is history all that connects these two sure- fire hits?
Thursday 22 February 1996
Trainspotting arrives stamped with the hallmark "instant cult". It is nervy, fast-moving, constantly inventive, performed with gusto and driven by a stylish soundtrack. One of the characters, a James Bond buff who can sound off at will about 007 minutiae, could have come from a Quentin Tarantino movie. This is not the aspirational world of Shallow Grave, the excessively successful first film from the same directing-producing- writing team; in place of that murderous trio of yuppies in their achingly stylish apartment we have a bunch of heroin addicts shooting up, punching up and throwing up in a suite of grimy pubs, hovels (flats to die in, not to die for) and one latrine billed convincingly as the Worst Toilet in Scotland.
None of which necessarily means that Trainspotting won't find favour. Feelgood is out, and downbeat is big box-office right now, whether it's killing oneself through booze (Leaving Las Vegas) or stumbling through a series of hideous murders (Seven). The mood of the piece is wired: the idea is that (shock!) people do drugs because it's fun. Although that insight is hardly as new as the film-makers seem to imagine: there are enough Sixties movies hymning marijuana and acid, and Gus Van Sant painted a romantic portrait of the smackhead-life in Drugstore Cowboy a couple of years ago.
Near the beginning of Trainspotting, our hero, in quest of the opium suppositories he has evacuated in a bout of diarrhoea, plunges into the infamous toilet and, as his feet disappear down the pan, the film goes surreal, cutting to him swimming through beautiful waters. Rarely has total self-degradation seemed so seductive.
We haven't mentioned the story for the good reason that there isn't much of one; as the ubiquitous publicity (a black-and-white rogues' gallery of the five main actors) suggests, this is a character-driven piece, drifting and picaresque, going with the flow. Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor), the narrator, has turned to junk as an act of rebellion against the Argos catalogue lifestyle ("mortgage, starter home, leisure wear..."), tries to come off it, gets high again, cheats his friends (the ending is a startling echo of the betrayal in Shallow Grave). These are the sociopathic Begbie, Sick Boy, a smooth, peroxide womaniser, and the goofy, ingenuous Spud.
Diane, the fifth person featured on the poster, fades, like all the other women, midway through and, with her, a more distanced take on the beer-footie-fighting-drugs mentality. It's emphatically a lads' movie. Compared to others who have poked their fingers into the underbelly of Britain - Stephen Frears in My Beautiful Laundrette, Ken Loach, of whom the film- makers talk with polite respect but no obvious enthusiasm - the social and emotional range on display here is very slim. As in Shallow Grave, there's a clever callousness at the core - it's hard to care about the characters. In one scene, a baby dies while her mother and the gang get high. It's supposed to cause some profound change in Sick Boy, the undeclared father, but he seems much the same afterwards as he was before. Later, slightly despicably, the sprog is resurrected as a shock effect in a cold- turkey scene, crawling across the ceiling and twirling its head, Exorcist- style. For all its brilliance, the film finally feels sour and hollow. But this gifted team may well have a great movie in them yet.
Beneath the light touch and apparent gentility, Sense and Sensibility fields some harsh realities of its own. Like the book, Emma Thompson's screenplay opens with the inheritance which, tied to the male line, has reduced the three Dashwood sisters and their mother to penury. And it concludes with more money: a wedding in a shower of gold coins for which the guests scrabble greedily. If the women's vision seems narrow, that's because it has to be: unable either to inherit or to earn a fortune in their own right, they must focus all their energies on marrying well.
We must stress here that penury is relative. It's difficult to imagine what pounds 500 a year might mean by today's standards, but one does have to strain a little to pity a family that can only afford two servants. And when the Dashwoods eye, with deep dismay, the Devonshire "cottage" that is to be their humble new home, what we see is an estate agent's wet dream, a handsome country house in a breathtaking setting.
Sense and Sensibility brings Thompson two Academy Award nominations: one, well-deserved, for her lean and pointed screenplay, and a second for her lead performance as Elinor, the level-headed elder sister. This is almost becoming an annual tradition, and one feels she would be Oscar nominated for announcing that tea is served. It's not that her performance here is anything less than professional, but it has to be said that, in this world where women mature and marry young (considered over the hill by their mid-twenties), she ought, at 36, to be playing Mrs Dashwood, not the female lead. Thompson's range is not infinite and, as in Carrington, this central miscasting prevents us from quite making the leap of faith.
As Edward Ferrars, Hugh Grant stutters charmingly, fiddling with the knick-knacks on the mantlepiece as he declares himself to Elinor - it's funny, yes, but it's also a lazy period replay of his performance in Four Weddings and Nine Months. However, the remaining cast is as sturdy as we have come to expect from this kind of film, with Kate Winslett (also Oscar-nominated) sweetly vulnerable as Marianne, and a small but delicious comic turn from Hugh Laurie as the tart, long-suffering Mr Palmer.
Ang Lee, the Taiwanese director of The Wedding Banquet and Eat Drink Man Woman, might seem an odd choice for this quintessentially British story. But he's a master at intrigue which revolves around deceptions and sudden revelations - perfect for a story where many of the most significant events occur off screen in London, to where all three male leads disappear mid-way through. Characters are never what they first seem - nor even the film's locations; only near the end, as the Dashwoods' horizons open up, do we realise that their cottage is not deep inland but right by the sea.
Lee has a trick of holding away from the big emotional moments. In one scene, Elinor listens to her sisters and mother sobbing their hearts out, all behind their bedroom doors, as she sits resignedly on the stairs sipping a cup of tea - and, even then, Lee shoots her from above and behind so that her face is invisible. It's the perfect visual equivalent for Jane Austen's ironic detachment - and while there are no visual pyrotechnics in this movie, one feels that less can sometimes be more.
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