Directed by Danny Boyle. Starring Ewan McGregor, Ewen Bremner, Jonny Lee Miller, Robert Carlyle.
**Warning** whilst I won’t be spoiling any major revelations within T2, my review will reveal plot points specific to the original Trainspotting.
It’s been twenty years since Mark Renton (McGregor) betrayed his friends and made off with the ill-gotten gains from their drug deal, but now, after living in Amsterdam with his wife for two decades, he’s returned to Edinburgh where he reconnects with his friends, Spud Murphy (Bremner) and Simon “Sick Boy” Williamson (Lee Miller). Spud isn’t doing so good, he’s still addicted to heroin and is estranged from his former girlfriend Gail (Shirley Henderson) and his son Fergus. Sick Boy has moved on from heroin to cocaine. He runs a squalid pub he inherited from his aunty and is romantically involved with a Bulgarian prostitute named Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova) and the two make money from a sordid blackmail scheme.
Mark wants to save Spud, and he wants to reconcile with Sick Boy. Sick Boy on the other hand is still smarting from the betrayal of twenty years ago and wants revenge. In this he is not alone because Francis Begbie (Carlyle) has also never forgiven Mark. He’s been in prison for the last twenty years but after being turned down for parole he escapes.
Slowly but surely the four former friends find their lives edging closer together once more, but with revenge and betrayal in the air, is tragedy the likely outcome?
There’s been talk of a Trainspotting sequel for many years, and Irvine Welsh even wrote a sequel “Porno” but it’s taken a long time and several abortive attempts to bring the characters of Renton, Sick Boy, Spud, and Begbie back to the screen, and in the end the film only borrows from Welsh, with a mostly original story from screenwriter John Hodge.
Trainspotting is an odd film for me. It’s not something I watched when it first came out, in fact it didn’t appeal in the slightest. Eventually I caught it on video and was surprised to find I enjoyed it. Still I never felt the urge to re-watch it. When T2 was announced I thought it might be a good idea to revisit the original before seeing the sequel, and for a variety of reasons I actually watched it twice in the last few weeks. These viewings have taught me that it is a very good film, and also provided a good basis to watch the sequel.
So the odd thing is, in the past few weeks I’ve gone from being someone who was quite ambivalent about Trainspotting, to someone who’s quite a fan, of both the original, and now the sequel. Because you see the sequel is very, very good.
I think the long lag between the films has only helped matters. This clearly isn’t a cash in of the kind we’ve seen a lot of lately (Zoolander 2 etc.). Rather than a sequel that tries to recreate the original, T2 is a very different beast, albeit one that utilises existing characters and harks back, not only to the original film, but even further, to the childhood of these characters.
The insurgent, in-your-face edginess of the original film has gone, to be replaced by an air of melancholic nostalgia and regret. These characters aren’t the nihilistic young men they once were, they’re middle aged and life hasn’t necessarily been good for any of them.
As the characters have changed so has Edinburgh, and the world. Gentrification and immigration factor into the story, and social media is obviously something that wasn’t around back in 1996. At the heart of what makes the film so successful is a good script, great direction and four very assured performances from actors who know their characters inside out and slip back into the roles as easily as if they were putting on an old coat.
Of the four characters Renton is perhaps the one who’s changed the most. He’s successful, on the surface at least, and has replaced his addiction for heroin with an addiction for keep fit. McGregor plays the part well, letting just enough of the cheeky old Renton slip out to ensure you know it’s the same person.
Of all the characters Sick Boy was always perhaps the most nihilistic, in part because of the death of his child. Jonny Lee Miller is an actor I’ve grown to appreciate more and more in recent years thanks to his work on Elementary, and in many respects he has the hardest role to play. Sick Boy isn’t as innately likeable as Renton or Spud, and he doesn’t have that ‘man you love to hate’ vibe that Begbie does, so its testament to Lee Miller’s acting that he makes a character it would be so easy to dislike, into one we can empathise with, and even root for. His love for the woman he’s inveigled into his blackmail schemes even manages to be quite sweet.
Begbie was pretty terrifying in Trainspotting, and time has not dented his threat level. Robert Carlyle was scary before, but if anything he’s even scarier now. Time has hardened Franco’s heart (but possibly softened other areas) but in his own way he’s regretful as the others. He just has a harder time showing it. None of which detracts from the fact that he remains a man you would never want to get on the wrong side of.
As Spud Bremner was probably the nicest guy in the original, and so he remains in the sequel. Never the sharpest tool in the box, it was notable that Spud was the one you felt sorriest for. Time hasn’t been kind to him but Spud continues to reflect this. Bremner does a good job of showing us how much Spud has grown, even though he hasn’t managed to escape his addiction. He’s still not the smartest man in the room, but he isn’t quite the loveable fool he was in Trainspotting, and whilst Renton suggests he finds a new addiction, and jokingly suggests boxing, Spud instead latches on to an unexpected talent, with nice allusions to Irvine Welsh himself.
Many other characters from the original are back as well, the aforementioned Shirley Henderson as Gail, the redoubtable James Cosmo as Renton’s dad, and even Kelly McDonald as Renton’s former under age lover Diane (although hers is the only reprise that seems ever so slightly forced). And Welsh returns as Mikey Forrester. As the only real new character of note, Nedyalkova as Veronika provides a vital outsider’s eye, able to view the ridiculousness of the men she’s involved with in a way no other character can—in particular her response to Renton and Sick Boy’s bromance is hilarious.
As I said, this film isn’t as abrasive as the original, and is perhaps a little more comfortable, a little more middle aged, which is surely the point. Boyle’s direction is assured, and in concert with Hodges script he’s created a film that manages to be laugh out loud funny one moment, scary the next, and heart reading soon after. Yes, there are some contrivances, and yes the scheme to publicly fund a brothel is a tiny bit farfetched, and the end does descend into standard thriller conventions (though thankfully it didn’t turn into the end of Blade Runner which I had feared—Boyle has form after all, Sunshine started out as a hard sci-fi film and turned into Event Horizon in the end!)
Maybe it helps that I’m roughly the same age as many of these characters, so even though my childhood was nothing like theirs I can still relate, and still find common ground with their nostalgia, their regret for the past and for roads not taken, and their grief for the people in their lives who are long gone, and for their own lost youth.
First there is an opportunity, then there is a betrayal, but in the final analysis what you’re left with is a very good follow up, to a very good original. Boyle has joked about making T3 in another 20 years, I for one will look forward to that.