If you’re planning to film an adaptation of one of Irvine Welsh’s stories, you would probably do well to steer clear of anything that reminds your audience of a certain other Welsh adaptation from 1996. You’d be wise not to set the scene with a first person Scottish voiceover, mix in high-speed sequences, freeze frames and on-screen captions to introduce your characters, or include anything by Primal Scream on your soundtrack. And you should absolutely, positively, under no circumstances, include a scene in which your main character fishes a drug stash out of a toilet bowl. The last thing you want is for your audience to wish they were watching Trainspotting instead.
These are just a few of the fatal choices Rob Heydon makes as director and co-writer of Irvine Welsh’s ecstasy, freely adapted from “The Undefeated,” the third novella in the 1997 anthology Ecstasy: Three Tales of Chemical Romance. Another – and it’s a big one – is to cast an actor (Mile High’s Adam Sinclair) who looks, and is, about ten years too old to play the carefree clubber, pill-popper and occasional drug trafficker Lloyd Bulist, who finds a high that has nothing to do with chemicals when he falls for a beautiful young Canadian (Smallville’s Kristin Kreuk). But is he willing to make the decision to give up his drug of choice, in order to give love a chance? And, perhaps more to the point, will the local gangsters (Carlo Rota, Ashley Pover) let him leave the drug trade behind?
Welsh’s prose should make for vivid, vibrant screen material, exemplified by Danny Boyle’s hugely influential adaptation of his 1993 novel Trainspotting. Unfortunately, Heydon’s first feature proves that just because you have a hundred-odd music videos and commercials under your belt, narrative fiction calls for a whole other skillset – especially the part about directing actors speaking dialogue.
From the derivative opening, in which Lloyd extols the virtues of life on the love drug, the film is an amateurish affair, populated by clichéd characters played almost entirely by a cast with no discernible acting ability whatsoever – at times, the film plays like a benefit gig for bad actors. The one exception is poor Billy Boyd, whose status as one of the film’s few recognisable ‘names’ is rewarded with an entire subplot in which drugs send him doolally, earning him a stretch in a mental institution seemingly researched by back-to-back viewings of 12 Monkeys and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
Adding to the general irritation all of this engenders is the film’s absence of a coherent setting. Although still in wide recreational use, ecstasy is a ‘90s drug, and in updating the source material for a 21st century audience, Heydon fudges the setting, so that references to airport customs being tougher post-9/11, and the occasional glimpse of a Blackberry, are incongruously wedded to the music, glo-sticks and smiley-face T-shirts of rave culture, already largely nostalgic when Welsh’s book came out in 1997. When an old Coldplay song joins the likes of Orbital, Tiesto, Bonjay, The Mahones and – yes – Primal Scream on the soundtrack, the dog’s dinner is complete.
It doesn’t help that the whole film, set in Edinburgh but with clunky and obvious concessions to its part-Canadian funding, has clearly been shot on a shoestring – a fact which the press notes does its best to spin to its advantage. “Fittingly, for these straitened times, Heydon has made ecstasy at a fraction of the cost of Trainspotting,” the PRs declare, making the potentially fatal mistake of mentioning the T-word before anyone else does. It doesn’t help that the film’s marketing team gives the iconic Trainspotting poster a yellow do-over, hoping it will follow its predecessor onto a million student bedroom walls. While Welsh can be commended for sticking with the fledgling writer-director through the film’s ten-year development period, his loyalty seems sharply at odds with his judgment.
There may be a good film to be made out of one of Welsh’s Tales of Chemical Romance – perhaps even this one – but Heydon’s film is most definitely not it. As films about chemical highs go, Irvine Welsh’s ecstasy may be a new low. ★