It was a bit of a nerve-wracking experience preparing to see T2 Trainspotting, but to be honest, it’s the cast and crew I really felt sorry for. “No one wants to make a shite sequel,” as Ewan McGregor put it during a Guardian interview earlier this year.
As a huge fan of the seminal 1996 film, and an aficionado of (some) of Irvine Welsh’s work, I joined many a Scottish cinema-goer in the last two weeks who has gone in to see the long-awaited sequel, feeling a heady mix of anxiety and excitement.
Both the original movie and the book culturally defined an era in Scotland and the UK – we look back on the 1990s and speak of Trainspotting in the same breath as Oasis. (Amusing tidbit: Oasis turned down a spot on the 1996 film’s soundtrack due to thinking it was literally about watching trains.)
The first film’s iconic status put pressure on T2 the likes of which few British sequels have ever had to endure, and the supreme question is: has it delivered?
For this viewer, it certainly didn’t disappoint. That said, it did not completely satisfy either.
The first overwhelming impression I had, as early as the first couple of frames, was how exquisitely well-made the film was: bold, colourful and snappily-edited, the film moves at a frenetic visual pace to match the soundtrack, with stunning cinematography to boot, including brilliant time-lapse footage on an Edinburgh tram and a gorgeous vista of the capital from the heights of Arthur’s Seat.
Much of the film, indeed, could be reused for a highly serviceable Visit Scotland advert. Just ideally with less drug-dealing, credit card fraud, prison-breaking, sectarianism, strap-on dildos, and attempted suicides.
Topping off the visual feast of T2 is Danny Boyle’s signature, stylish directorial stamp. recalling the rock ‘n’ roll editing tics and freeze-frames of the original film. This continual homage to the former film’s glory, both in the script, the performances of the returning cast and in the mechanics of the film itself, serve a thematic purpose that gives the new outing a power all of its own: the power of nostalgia.
Where many sequels fail, this one succeeds in being self-aware, and in its conscious binding to the original, making the two almost inextricable. It is a sequel in the original sense of the word – a story, continued.
While the first film shocked viewers over 20 years ago with images of intravenous heroin use, cot deaths and the rampagings of a psychopath, what is perhaps most shocking about T2 (besides a certain scene involving someone puking into a plastic bag) is the starkness of the ageing process itself.
Simply seeing Ewan McGregor (Renton), Jonny Lee Miller (Sick Boy), Ewan Bremner (Spud) and Robert Carlyle (Begbie) back in their old Edinburgh stomping-ground is one thing, but Boyle infuses the film with flashbacks both to the original film and, on a few occasions, to even further back to the boys’ childhoods. The simple visuals of seeing their older selves, cut with snapshots of their younger selves, spoke a thousand words.
More than anything else, this film is about feeling old, and feeling useless, and about lost youth, and that theme provides it with the sturdiest of thematic backbones.
McGregor turns in his best performance since, well, Trainspotting, while Bremner portrays Spud with a humour and pathos that makes the character the film’s emotional heart. Even the notorious Franco Begbie, played to volatile perfection by Carlyle, is given moments in which his character can breathe and is allowed to be humanised thanks to the introduction of his college-age son (Scot Greenan).
As someone who read Trainspotting before seeing the classic film, the one tiny thing that disappointed me was a lack of insight into Simon (aka Sick Boy) played by Jonny Lee Miller. In both Welsh’s source material and in the sequel Porno, upon which the screenplay for T2 is very loosely based, his decadent, nefarious, duplicitous character is alternately nasty and hilarious.
In T2, I felt we finally saw the Sick Boy of the books, with Miller brushing down his Scottish accent and putting in a fantastically seedy, curmudgeonly performance. His “girlfriend” Veronika, played by Anjela Nedyalkova, was a welcome cast addition, although her primary function as a plot device rather overshadowed her not-uninteresting character.
The one thing that supposedly brought the original cast and director back together so decisively was the gang’s collective confidence in John Hodge’s screenplay – and it is, in fact, outstanding. The dialogue still crackles and there are dozens of gems of comedic moments to be found, as well as an emotional pull and power. A letter Bremner’s Spud writes to his wife and son early during the film, for example, is tragic and deeply moving.
If I have any complaint of T2 and its script – and “complaint” may be too strong a word, although “niggle” would be too weak – it’s my feeling regarding the contrivance of certain scenes. I’m thinking of two in particular, both of which, incidentally, work wonderfully as set-pieces: the “sing-song” led by Renton and Sick Boy in the loyalist bar, and the updated version of Renton’s iconic “Choose life” speech while in a restaurant with Veronika.
As I say, both scenes are excellent on their own merits: the new version of “Choose life” was, of course, previewed in the trailer, but it stands on its own within the film, performed with a kind of lost, raw, jaded bitterness by McGregor. But the naturalist in me was wondering: “Come on now… would it really happen like that?”
It is the line Welsh’s book and its adaptation always finely trod: the tightrope between gritty realism and hedonistic caper. On several occasions – others might include Renton and Sick Boy’s choreographed fight scene, and Renton’s action-movie escape from Begbie whilst on top of a moving car – I wondered if the sequel had slipped on that tightrope and had fallen onto the wrong side.
But style and spectacle was always at the heart of these films – I know I’m talking about the original too much, but I do feel they are inescapable companions – so brief forays into the contrived can be forgiven. Especially with that soundtrack.
It pounds its way through the film, varnishing it with a punk feel and ethos, rehashing old favourites (including an incredible Prodigy remix of Iggy Pop) along with ambient interludes and new additions like Wolf Alice and Young Fathers.
If I have a final comment to make of the film that borders on the critical, it is this: where its predecessor was an uncompromising, razor-sharp film, this outing had softer edges. While tense and dramatic and dark, it simply doesn’t recapture the first’s punch, that rawness.
But then, I never expected it to. 20 years on, why would it? That is the perhaps confusing nature of this film: it feels both bound to the original and yet capable of standing alone. If you saw this without any knowledge of the Trainspotting universe, I see no reason to think it would diminish your enjoyment of it.
In a dire age of cinema, in which watching trailers at the cinema leaves me feeling depressed as my brain is inundated with bland, recycled guff, a sequel which manages to stay true to its sense of self as a “franchise” (God, I hate that word), while being enjoyable and comprehensible to a lay viewer is something the Powers-That-Be in Hollywood should be paying attention to.