Tanya Dudnikova reviews Danny Boyle’s long-awaited sequel to the 1996 cult classic.
When director Danny Boyle first announced his plans for a sequel to Trainspotting – for what would, in fact, be his first directed sequel – the news was received with innumerable questions. Is it wise to make a sequel two decades after the original? Will it bring anything new to the table? Will the old cast return? And, most importantly, will it be any good?
After its release in 1996, Trainspotting quickly came to be regarded as a cult classic and a quintessential British movie. Giving the world a delirious insight into Edinburgh’s seedy drug scene, it was equal parts shocking and provocative, its characters by turn lovable and contemptible. There was no denying that making a sequel to such an iconic movie would prove a mammoth task, but Boyle was under no illusions regarding the project he was about to undertake. The aim was to create something that would not disgrace the legacy of the franchise but would be fresh enough to attract contemporary audiences. The heavy weight of responsibility plagued the set, with hushed whispers of “it’d better not be shite” radiating among the cast and crew, and with good reason. If the film were indeed shite, they would be eaten alive by both scathing critics and a generation of nostalgic cinemagoers who grew up with Iggy Pop’s Lust for Life and Renton’s memorable “Choose Life” mantra as the backdrop to their youth.
Twenty-one years later, T2 Trainspotting (henceforth referred to as T21) is just as foul-mouthed but not quite as controversial as its predecessor. The sequel, which is a loose adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s Porno, catches up with the old antiheroes as they face middle age, with all its tribulations and insecurities. Ewan McGregor makes his return as Mark “Rent Boy” Renton, who goes back to Scotland to make amends with those he wronged; Ewen Bremner is back as the charming but dim-witted Spud; Jonny Lee Miller returns to his filthy ways as blonde, womanising Sick Boy, now known as Simon; and Robert Carlyle appears as Begbie, who finally orchestrates his own escape after a long spell behind bars. In Boyle’s own words, “They may be twenty years older when trying to reconnect, but they are still none the wiser”, and he is certainly not wrong.
The plot integrates fragments from both Porno and Trainspotting. It follows Renton’s endeavours as he tries to reconnect with old friends and escape the wrath of psychopathic Begbie, who seeks revenge at any cost. Highlights include a scene in which the pursuer and the pursued realise that they are separated only by the wall of a bathroom cubicle – a nod to the “Worst Toilet in Scotland” scene from 1996 – as well as a wonderfully comical and unexpected moment in which Renton and Simon improvise a sectarian chant to placate the group of Catholic-hating unionists they’re trying to rob. The same vices are ever-present, and history repeats itself; ‘First, there was an opportunity. Then, there was a betrayal’ are lines repeated throughout the film. However, this time around, when the betrayal does come it is neither surprising nor moving. The thrill is gone.
Much has changed in the years since Trainspotting was first released. Boyle has tried hard to relay this on the big screen, and the manner in which T2 retains the spirit of the original while acknowledging these changes is commendable. It is encapsulated in an updated “Choose Life” speech Renton gives to Veronika, Simon’s possible-girlfriend / business partner, by way of explanation for the slogan. Gone are the references to CD players and fixed-interest mortgage repayments, their place taken by mentions of slut shaming, reality TV, and social networks like Facebook and Twitter. In a bizarre scene that attempts to situate the film in the 2010s, Renton and Simon now bond over selfies and Snapchat filters instead of shoplifting. While the story initially concentrates more on their bittersweet relationship and gradual reconciliation, it is Ewen Bremner who ends up stealing the spotlight as Spud. Spud’s character development from beginning to end is a sheer pleasure to watch, and as his talent for storytelling is gradually revealed, we see him transform from suicidal junkie to useful and fully functioning member of society. His stories, which retell the drug-filled, exhilarating adventures from the gang’s adolescence, have the power to move even the hardest of hearts.
One of T2’s major flaws is the lack of screen time afforded to women. Kelly McDonald, who first came to attention after her acting debut as Renton’s bold schoolgirl girlfriend Diane, appears in a one-scene, two-minute cameo. Her inclusion feels forced and slightly awkward, as her present occupation as a lawyer is slotted in for an easy plot device. Equally underused is Spud’s suffering ex-girlfriend Gail (Shirley Henderson), who parents their teenage son by herself. The only female lead with a meaty part is the utterly uninteresting Veronika, played by Bulgarian newcomer Anjela Nedyalkova. She is as unsympathetic as she is beautiful, and her portrayal is disappointing in all respects; so much more could have been done with her. For Boyle, however, this is all part of the point. “We all felt that [T2 is] about masculinity really,” he asserts, “which is why there’s not many women in it, and those that are, are disappointed, or they’re secretly taking advantage of the men because they’re foolish – they are, we are.” A sufficient explanation? Perhaps, but not for everyone.
Carlyle hit the nail on the head when he praised Hodge’s screenplay and hinted that T2 “is going to be quite emotional for people. Because the film sort of tells you to think about yourself. You are going to be thinking: ‘Fuck. What have I done with my life?'” Therein lies its appeal. It is steeped in nostalgia, a wistful yearning, and the creeping realisation that all good things must come to an end. An air of disillusionment has replaced harrowing scenes of dying babies and diving into dirty toilets; heroin has become secondary to new demons – unrealised potential and the crippling depression that goes hand in hand with the inability to learn from past mistakes (although drugs still play a hefty part, and Spud’s battles in particular are painful to watch). Naturally, this altered, melancholy tone has a profound impact on the gentler pacing of the film, which does not quite live up to the manic nature of its processor. Where Trainspotting was revolutionary and indefatigable, T2 is more mature and restrained, retrospective rather than invigorating. And yet, it is still bursting with energy – albeit the diminishing energy of the visibly ageing characters – aided effectively by sharp editing and an impressive soundtrack featuring the likes of Queen, Blondie and the Clash.
It is debatable whether it is worth seeing for those who have not seen the original, since it is so heavily peppered with references and allusions. But then, that is exactly where the majority of its charm lies, in this self-referential sense of nostalgia always bubbling away under the surface, prominent enough for us to be aware of it, subtle enough for it not to get overly intrusive. Simon accuses Renton of ‘nostalgic tourism’, but it feels as though he is speaking directly to the audience. We are all nostalgic tourists after all, eager to relive the past by any means.
The verdict: T2 certainly isn’t perfect, and will not please everyone (if you want proof, read this derisive Little White Lies review); it still remains to be seen how it will fare with audiences who are too young to have watched Trainspotting. However, there is no doubt it is a respectable sequel in its own right, and an appropriate continuation of the franchise. For those who want a trip down memory lane (and the crushing realisation of impending doom and disappointment as we all crawl towards death), there can be nothing better. Hats off to Danny Boyle.
T2 Trainspotting is out in UK cinemas now. See the trailer below:
1Danny Boyle’s explanation of the title was that “[he] always thought that if these characters were asked to do a sequel they would agree reluctantly and say ‘all right but you have got to call it T2 so that you can annoy James Cameron (director of Terminator 2: Judgement Day, commonly referred to as T2)’”. [The Scotsman]