Both, This is England (Shane Meadows, 2006) and Trainspotting (Danny Boyle, 1996) are defining films of the 90s and both deal with growing up in poverty/deprived urban environments. The two main characters, Shaun and Renton, are seen falling into the wrong crowd as we explore themes of friendship and peer pressure. Both young protagonists are flawed but engaging at the same time. Although sharing similarities in terms of ideologies, both films can be read in alternate ways with different intentions from both directors, Meadows and Boyle.
Trainspotting follows the life of Mark Renton and his three friends: Sick Boy, Spud and Begbie as they are enthralled in a life of drugs and violence. The film begins with Renton’s ‘Choose Life’ monologue in which he describes the boring nature of everyday life and lists reasons why one would choose to take drugs instead. However, this is ironic as by the end of the film, Renton has abandoned his old lifestyle and wants all the things he previously mocked.
A preferred reading of Trainspotting would be that the director is presenting the way in which drugs destroy lives and the film is a message of warning to the upcoming, younger generation. However, an oppositional reading is perhaps that this lifestyle chosen by Renton and his friends is a great alternative to everyday life, which is particularly boring in comparison.
The film defines youth culture of the 1990s by exploring characters who attempt to escape society by creating an alternative lifestyle taking drugs. Trainspotting uses binary opposites of reality and fantasy to explore this chosen lifestyle. The film is set in reality but the introduction of fantasy elements portray the effects of taking drugs. These are used to develop the audiences understanding of the experience of taking drugs. The most notable example of a fantasy sequence which explores the experience of drugs would be Renton’s hallucination when he is going cold turkey and finally stopping drugs. The director provides the audience with multiple close up shots of Renton clearly feeling uncomfortable as he is trapped in his small bedroom. The close ups and the small space further reinforce the idea of Renton being trapped in this world with no escape from his nightmares. As well as this, Boyle presents us with the realities of taking drugs and engaging in this dangerous lifestyle. An example of this would be the harrowing death of the baby which all the characters are forced to face. The close up shots which show the baby has died purposely make the audience feel uncomfortable and therefore imply this lifestyle is not something to be desired.
Trainspotting creates the idea of created families is again demonstrated but here Boyle uses the binary opposites of isolation and inclusion. Throughout the film, Renton is consistently present alongside the other members of his friendship group, who also share the same lifestyle as him. Boyle creates the idea of closeness within the group through the fact they are always together, sharing the same house and being part of each other’s experience. However as the film progresses, Renton begins to isolate himself from the rest of the group, the first instance possibly being his decision to quit drugs. This disassociates him from the lifestyle his friends love so much. Later in the film Renton moves to London which is a complete contrast to Edinburgh. The London montage sequence features upbeat music with rapid editing and brighter colour, making it appear superior to Edinburgh. This could imply Renton is trying to become a better person and remove himself from his previous lifestyle. The film ends with Renton stealing the money him and his friends made from a drug deal. Renton makes the decision to run away and not look back on his friendship group, completely isolating himself on his own terms. This could imply that the desired drug lifestyle is not as appealing as it was made out to be in the initial stages of the film and instead a more simple lifestyle is preferred.
Trainspotting uses binary opposites to juxtapose those who take drugs and those who do not. At the beginning of the film, the main characters: Renton, Sick Boy, Spud and Begbie are introduced to us playing football against an opposing team. The boys appear disheveled in their appearance with messy clothing that doesn’t coordinate. The use of mise en scene effectively presented the drug users as the more careless group who don’t aim to fit in with society. On the other hand, the opposing team of non drug users all wear identical uniforms and look much more put together. This would suggest that although simialr ages and part of the same youth culture, both groups take seperate routes in terms of life choices. Later in the film, we discover Begbie doesn’t take drugs like the rest of his group, but ironically he is the most violent of all characters in the film. Begbie criticises the boys for taking drugs but behaves immorally himself, for example when he throws a glass over the bannister at a pub. This would imply that all characters have an element of corruption to their lifestyles and that, in this instance, taking drugs is not the most immoral of all behaviours.
This is England is another film which follows the alternative lifestyle of the youth culture. This is England is an autobiographical film based on Shane Meadows’ experience growing up in Nottingham. Shaun, who feels lonely and isolated in his daily life, joins the Skinhead gang which leads to him joining Combo’s more dangerous, racist group. During the 1980s, skinhead culture was prominent, with one half engaging in Jamaican music culture and the other largely concerned with racist attitudes, particularly ideas associated with the national front.
A preferred reading of This is England would be that the skinheads are presented in a positive light, demonstated through Woody’s group of friends who care for Shaun and welcome him into the gang. An oppositional reading may continue to associate skinheads with racism, as was common of the 1980s with the group increasingly associated with the national front and racist sentiment, shown through the presentation of Combo.
Similarly to Trainspotting, This Is England also explores the youth culture through the different types of Skinheads. There are two different types of Skinheads demonstrated by Combo’s and Woody’s groups. Meadows uses montages to successfully contrast the alternate values of the different youth culture. Through Combo’s montage, the audience are aware, through the use of non diegetic piano music, that there is more of a sad/angry feel. This would reflect Combo’s racist attitudes and the effect this has upon the other characters within the film. Combo’s opinions are reminiscent of the time period where racism was prevalent. To contrast, Woody’s group montage features upbeat Reggae music, popular at the time, which shows they are more accepting of different cultures. During the group montage, we are presented with a series of snapshots which show the group all having fun and enjoying themselves. Again, this suggests that Shaun is better off as part of Woody’s group who offer fun and make him feel welcome, rather than Combo whose racist ideals make other characters feel uncomfortable.
This is England includes the idea of created families, using binary opposites of affection and manipulation. Combo is the manipulator while Woody takes on a more paternal, affectionate approach. When first introduced to Woody, we see him welcome Shaun into the gang and comfort him by making jokes about Harvey, a boy Shaun fought at school. This presentation of Woody is repeated throughout the film where he tries to steer Shaun away from Combo’s gang, being aware of his bad intentions. When talking outside the cafe, a preferred reading would suggest that Woody and Combo are not as close as we were led to believe when Combo returned from prison, where we saw close ups of the two men hugging and welcoming each other back into their lives. When we meet Combo, his racist monologue makes other characters feel evidently uncomfortable, in particular Lol. From her facial expression accompanied by the slow piano music, we identify Combo as a negative character whose views are distressing for others. Combo here begins to manipulate other characters into agreeing with his point of view, foreshadowing his later conversations with Shaun where he manipulates him by talking about his father. The ending of the film clearly shows the audience that Combo is a negative influence on Shaun’s life as he repeatedly cries after witnessing Combo beat up Milky.
Meadows focuses on the ideology of masculinity and femininity but does not present them as binary opposites as Trainspotting does. Instead, both genders are presented as very similar, especially in terms of appearance. During the group montage where the whole gang are out enjoying themselves, there is no major distinction between the male and female characters as they have simialar hairstyles and choice of clothing. The use of mise en scene would suggest that youth culture does not restrict based on gender and the focus is more central around the skinhead movement.
Both This is England and Trainspotting include ideologies relevent to the culture of the time in which they were made. In This is England, the skinhead movement is most prominent of all ideologies but Meadows incorporates other ideas of created families and masculinity to separate the different groups of skinheads. For Trainspotting, drug addiction is the most prominent ideology and the fate of the majority of characters would make us feel inclined to follow the preferred reading of the film which suggests taking drugs is a dangerous path to follow.