Is T2 Trainspotting a worthy sequel to one of the greatest British films of all time?
No film has been quite as hyped up on this blog as Danny Boyle’s long-awaited sequel to his 1996 classic Trainspotting. Ever since Boyle announced he was reuniting with producer Andrew MacDonald, screenwriter John Hodges, and the original cast to work on the then-unnamed follow-up, I’ve been anticipating its premiere with excitement and minor anxiety. After all, the most viewed blog I’ve ever written was my breathless, ever-so-slightly hyperbolic article ‘Why Trainspotting is the Best Film of All Time’. The original means a lot to me; since I first developed a passion for cinema in my early teens, I’ve called Trainspotting my all-time favourite film. The combination of stylish direction, brash performances and incredible music blew my mind and made me want to work in film. Twenty years later, can T2 Trainspotting possibly live up to its masterful predecessor?
From the opening half hour alone, it’s clear that T2 Trainspotting is a very different beast from Trainspotting, or almost any other sequel I can think of. Opening with a long-haired, healthy-looking Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor) collapsing on a treadmill in Amsterdam, T2 Trainspotting paints a portrait of four very different men struggling with aging and twenty years of regret. Simon “Sick Boy” (Johnny Lee Miller) runs a deserted pub, earning money through blackmail schemes with his prostitute girlfriend Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova). Still struggling with heroin addiction, Spud (Ewen Bremner) is depressed, having lost his wife and son to his demons, while Francis Begbie (Robert Carlyle) comes up with a brutal method of escaping from prison.
Though T2 Trainspotting often reuses or repurposes clips from the original film, this is a more melancholic, thoughtful film. When we see glimpses of the tragic Tommy, or Spud and Renton’s iconic run down the streets, the characters aren’t gleefully reminiscing about the past; they’re haunted by lives poorly lived and friendships destroyed. Danny Boyle’s direction often uses experimental techniques like projecting old sequences on walls, or recreating the first film’s most iconic moments as living memories, to give us glimpses of how vibrant, cocky youths gave way to failed, bitter adults.
Where T2 Trainspotting goes wrong is in trying to recapture the energy and style of the first film. Boyle is famous for his non-stop camera movement and quick cuts, but this is one of the first instances of his technique becoming distracting, rather than elevating the material. Though writer John Hodges needed to bring the story fully into the 21st century, the transition is far from smooth. Updating the opening scene of the original to include modern CCTV technology? Having Simon and Mark film their antics on snapchat? There’s a certain stench of middle aged men writing for younger audiences that feels ever-so-slightly embarrassing. Most egregious is the updated ‘Choose Life’ speech, which transforms from cynical narration to a monologue used to woo a potential love interest. Did anybody need to know the origin of ‘Choose Life’?
At two hours, T2 Trainspotting is a much flabbier, looser film than the taut 90-minute Trainspotting. While the plot is a little stretched out and tries to do too much (a subplot involving a rival criminal boss is raised and dropped in two minutes), it’s nice to have some breathing room to allow perpetual supporting actors Ewen Bremner and Robert Carlyle plenty of screen time. Carlyle is genuinely terrifying as the older, vengeful Begbie, while Bremner steals the first half of the film with a devastating scene showing the older man forced to buy heroin from younger dealers. Miller and McGregor slip back into the old characters beautifully, although Renton is the most ill-served by the script. Rather than the clever, backstabbing club owner of Irvine Welsh’s sequel book Porno, the Renton of T2 Trainspotting comes across as a bit of a loser, and his reasons for returning to Scotland are ill-defined at best.
Welsh’s novels have always been criticised for lacking solid female characters, something Boyle and Hodges previously avoided with the sparky, witty Diane (Kelly MacDonald). Sadly, T2 Trainspotting treats its female characters pretty badly. Veronika is sure to be a divisive character. The film posits her as a main character, someone unemotional and intelligent enough to avoid the downfalls of the men in her life. However, the script seems to use her solely to give other characters a chance to relay exposition to the audience with painfully on-the-nose questions like “What did Mark do to you twenty years ago?” and “What does ‘Choose life’ mean?”. At least the script gives her something to do; the fabulous Kelly MacDonald is given one rather dull scene, while Shirley Henderson is given one paltry line in the final scene.
Thankfully, Boyle and his cast are talented enough to make T2 Trainspotting well worth the effort. Though darker and more painful twenty years on, the balance of humour and drama is still well-walked, the comedy highlight being an improvised song in a protestant pub. With Begbie firmly against his former friends, there’s a tension and story dynamic that lends the film genuine drama, carried by Carlyle’s unnerving, unpredictable performance. Older if not necessarily wiser, it’s an impressive mainstream film that tackles topics like impotence, professional failure, and friendship in a genuinely reflective way.
T2 Trainspotting does neither the worst thing a sequel could do (retroactively make the original worse) nor the best (have a good enough reason to exist). Though Boyle occasionally rehashes old magic with unsuccessful results, it’s impressive to see a sequel that feels so radically at odds with the original material. A film about nostalgia, regret, and the damning effects of time, T2 Trainspotting is far from perfect and unlikely to enter the cultural zeitgeist like the remarkable original, but there’s no denying that by the sublime final shot, you’ll be glad the gang reunited.
By Harry J. Ford
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