Written by James Jones
Film Review: T2 Trainspotting
It was a monologue which thousands of teenagers could recite, word-for-word, and which thousands more had displayed proudly on their bedroom walls. The “Choose Life” speech came, of course, from Trainspotting, a film which, with its anarchic and shocking approach to Cool Britannia, came to define the 1990s. Culturally, the impact of Danny Boyle’s film was huge, and it appears frequently in critics’ polls of the best of British cinema.
The announcement, then, that Boyle et al. were returning to the much-loved antiheroes of Trainspotting was greeted with a mix of excitement and trepidation. The original film holds so much power that a sequel threatened to be a cynical financial exercise, rather than a deserving return to stories which needed to be told. Fortunately, T2 Trainspotting complements the first film, broadening its themes and offering fans a welcome chance to re-engage with characters who, in amongst the extremes and devastation of drug-use, were likeable and relatable to audiences.
Set 20 years after the events of the original, T2 is a film about memory. We join a middle-aged Renton (Ewan McGregor) pounding a treadmill to the beat of a hallmark Danny Boyle soundtrack, evoking the famous shoplifting chase scene from the 1996 film. Although fuller in the face, McGregor has aged remarkably little in two decades, as has Simon/Sick Boy (played by Jonny Lee Miller) who – sporting bleach-blonde hair – is now running a blackmail enterprise involving prostitutes and video tapes. Despite their physical appearances, their lives are worn-out and drifting, obsessed with memories of the past and, in Sick Boy’s case, a sense of betrayal.
Equally imbued with a dark sense of the past is Robert Carlyle’s monstrous (and rather theatrical) Begbie, now at liberty after escaping prison and determined to track down Renton in search of revenge. Add the loveable but tragic Spud (played by Ewen Bremner) and the dysfunctional quartet of drug-addled, ageing Scots is complete. John Hodge’s screenplay (adapted from the novel by Irvine Welsh) is as energetic and bold as the original, and interweaves images and themes from the first film in a very effective way. It also adds new layers of emotion which is powerfully conveyed by the cast.
The cinematography is, naturally, more polished, but retains a playfulness and confidence in constructing a world in which reality can be bent and lives destroyed, whether under the influence of drugs or not. Frantic freeze-frame moments, inventive movement of the camera and a distinctive visual flare coalesce to create a film which, if not as ferocious as the original, certainly packs a punch. Never afraid to let a whole host of bodily fluids splatter across the screen, Boyle creates moments of repulsion, but manages to balances these with sequences of intense emotion. The performances, too, are remarkably assure, especially given the 20 years or so since the actors last engaged with their characters.
One of the most affecting of these performance is given by Bremner as Spud, who seemingly kicked the heroin habit only for it to crawl its way back into his life. Early on in the film, Renton’s reunion with Spud saves the latter’s life, and paves the way for Spud to reflect on events in the past and look to a precarious (and dangerous) rebuilding of old friendships. At the suggestion of Veronika (Sick Boy/Simon’s enigmatic “business partner”, and nicely played by Anjela Nedyalkova) Spud takes to writing down stories from the past on sheets of yellow paper which come to adorn his flat. A cathartic exercise and a visual representation of their past youth, this also acts as an important plot point, leading to a denouement which slides into the realms of a horror film. Then again, the 1996 film certainly packed a horror-infused punch.
All of the laughs (there are plenty of funny moments, especially an impromptu duet performed by Renton and Simon), violence, and feelings of sadness, desolation and defiance are underscored by a sense of nostalgia and memory. Middle age has crept up on the gang and, perhaps not unreasonably, none had expected to ever reach it. A longing for the past can not only be found in the themes of Hodge’s script, but also in the cinema audience itself, to whom Trainspotting is a defining and momentous film. Not only are the characters in T2 forever looking back to the past: so too are we. At one point, Simon quips to Renton, “you’re a tourist in your own youth”. He could also be speaking to those who hold such fond memories of Trainspotting, to those whose lives were so far-removed from the wild addicts portrayed on screen but who, conversely, felt intensely familiar.
T2 is not quite as good as Trainspotting. Then again, it was never going to capture the brilliant ingenuity and vitality of the original film which became something of a cultural zeitgeist for the 1990s. It is however, a worthy and sensitively-made film which is moving, frenetic, intense, funny, and often sad. In an age when “Choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players, and electrical tin can openers” has been replaced with “Choose Instagram”, it speaks to its audience with sincerity, but never forgets what made Trainspotting such a wonder of cinema.