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T2 Trainspotting (2017)
Director: Danny Boyle
Screenwriter: John Hodge
Starring: Ewan McGregor, Ewen Bremner, Robert Carlyle, Jonny Lee Miller, Anjela Nedyalkova
Twenty years removed from the subculture embracing smash hit that was Trainspotting (1996/97), director Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire – 2008, Steve Jobs – 2015) has re-assembled his cast of likely lads turned worldwide stars to gift us the sequel we didn’t even know that we wanted, but has done so with such honest intentions that T2 is one of modern cinema’s greatest rarities: a necessary sequel. Ewan McGregor, Jonny Lee Miller, Ewen Bremner and Robert Carlyle are back for the sort of nostalgia hit you’re not going to want to come down from.
Set at some point in the late 2000s, twenty years removed from the original film’s ambiguous late 80s setting, T2 is constructed in much the same way as its predecessor was in how it embraces the culture of its time. Renton, Spud and Sick Boy’s particular district of Edinburgh is no longer the bustling scene that it was in the midst of the group’s horrific youthful experiences, but is instead a recession hit wasteland living out its last days as a graveyard for the hopes, dreams and happy memories of those who grew up there. The cast of characters each echo this, with Sick Boy (Miller) earning most of his living from blackmailing the semi-wealthy – a £70,000 a year vice principle is the first case we’re introduced to – as his aunt’s old pub plays host to the movie’s most powerful metaphor for the current decade’s absence of prosperity and community, Spud (Bremner) is living in a tower block set for demolition as he moves from hit to hit of the drug (Heroin) that took over so much of the cast’s lives in the original, and Begbie (Carlyle) is plotting his way out of jail after spending most of the past 20 years at her majesty’s service. Renton (McGregor) seems to be the only character marginally succeeding courtesy of a new life in Amsterdam he funded with the £20,000 he took from the others in Trainspotting 1, but such illusions are soon crushed courtesy of his confession to being a loveless and homeless nomad searching for a meaning to his life.
It is through Renton’s journey as a middle-aged man searching for himself in the vast expanse of his once prospective youth that we are introduced to the rosy tint that time can give to old ways and previous ways of living, looking back with an air of sentimentality that is cleverly constructed to be the centrepiece of the movie’s thematic exploration. Danny Boyle’s talented and intricate yet still so typically visceral filmmaking works to emphasise this exploration by using the characters’ memories as vessels through time, and thus vessels through the history of the Trainspotting universe. This gives birth to some of the more interesting and seamless flashback and dream sequences that you’re likely to see, and creates an air of sentimentality for the first movie that works both commercially as a nostalgia vessel for T1 and within the narrative as an identifying factor for the characters’ ultimately human journeys through their forties, thus the sadness that comes with ageing and learning to prioritise differently.
It is in this respect that Trainspotting’s anti-authoritarian glow shines at its brightest, with Boyle and company working tirelessly to ensure that the journey of the characters echoes that of the world’s quickly dissolving sense of society and identity. It never shouts its politics in your face however, and in fact presents them more like the natural occurrences of the reality the filmmakers are attempting to create than any sort of out there propaganda. It is through this that the usually in your face style of the director leaps to the next level, binding the colourful visuals and imaginative camera movements to a much a more grounded experience, something that again works to enforce the ageing of the characters – thus their softening optimism, hope for the future and air of invincibility – and the more pessimistic societal landscape, while adding more layers to the already succulent narrative and thematic journeys.
Importantly in this regard, T2 Trainspotting is less embracing of cutting edge music and experimental filming methods than its predecessor was. But, that’s okay, because neither are the characters. Renton and company are each twenty years older and therefore so is the film, both in terms of its less optimistic and drug enthused setting and in terms of its more sophisticated filmmaking methods. This may take away from the quality of the journey for younger fans who have only recently experienced the original, especially those embracing of its drug-high-inspired sequences of aesthetic anarchy and bouncing life but, in reducing this experiential aspect of the film, Boyle has created a more classy yet reliable exploration of exactly what Trainspotting and the characters are. This comes to the fore in the film’s most striking of emotional moments, each of which hits like a comedown from a massive illegal high; a purposeful technique employed by the picture’s on form director. We’re put into the same shoes as the characters, with the entire movie becoming a metaphor for the actual experience of taking such drugs. We enjoyed Trainspotting so much that we wanted more of the drug, so we took another hit; a hit with an incredible high (the nostalgia, etc.) and a crashing low (the thrilling plot’s more sobering moments and gut wrenching conclusion). It’s a masterful technique that encapsulates the filmmaker’s utterly extraordinary vision. This may well go down as one of Boyle’s very best films, and a masterpiece of his clearly defined mainstream shoulder of British Art House cinema.
Danny Boyle mustn’t be the only member of the cast or crew to take credit in this regard however, as the overall narrative presented by John Hodge is both thrilling and capable of letting you sit back to ask questions of things beyond the film, such as your own life decisions and the evolution of society. The cast is also clearly motivated, with each of them offering statements regarding their own qualities in screen performance, but it is Spud actor Ewen Bremner that is perhaps the standout, embodying the skinny, addicted and desperate character with such unflinching depth that his is the most connectable person within the narrative and routing for him becomes one of the aspects of T2 most worth any emotional investment. Robert Carlyle is similarly as unmissable, yet for different reasons. As in the first film, Carlyle’s Begbie is astoundingly violent, and his undying need to self-destruct becomes more and more evident as the film progresses. Carlyle plays him in the same off-kilter way that he did in the original, but is ultimately tasked with making the character more relatable and humanised, something he certainly pulls off. However, it is through Carlyle’s character Begbie that one of T2 Trainspotting’s biggest flaws comes to light: making him a relatable antagonist.
For vast periods of the film, Begbie is the sort of charismatic protagonist you want to see more of but certainly never route for. In fact, he’s not relatable in almost any sense for the majority of the film, and that only works to increase his borderline psychotic demeanour and overall antagonistic presence within the narrative. Ultimately though, Begbie is ‘one of the gang’ and as such is offered a kind of redemption that allows him the same respect as the rest of the characters despite being completely undeserving. The method of such a redemption also seems somewhat forced, with nothing in the narrative of the picture pointing towards it in advance. One minute we’re scared of him and the next we’re sympathising with him, which perhaps offers an interesting commentary regarding the character being the result of neglect on both a personal and societal level, but ultimately removes from the intrigue of his journey and developing relationships with the other three main characters. It was unneeded backstory that looked to flesh out a character the filmmakers likely thought was too one dimensional, which is a shame given how effective the character was in terms of being a metaphor for neglect itself before such attention was paid to him.
A similarly frustrating aspect of the film comes in the midst of a traumatic reunion of the group’s friendship that sees Renton and Sick Boy experience Heroin for the first time in years as Spud watches on, clutching at himself in order to refrain from joining them. It’s effective in how it gains sympathy for Spud and offers some of the beautiful aesthetics that accompanied such scenes in the first movie, but the spiralling of Renton and Sick Boy into Heroin use once again is all-but dismissed after the fact. It felt passive, like the drug’s use was mishandled for the first (and only) time in any of the two films. Both Renton and Sick Boy are not seen using the drug again, despite its terribly addictive qualities, and their lives don’t seem to spiral like they did in T1.
Even with such moments of frustration, T2 Trainspotting is an absolute must watch. Everything, from the all-but derelict settings to the football team they support (Hibernian), offers commentary on the devolution of community and the relationships within the friendship group, and the way Boyle guides this commentary and the narrative’s thrilling arc via the use of memory as a vessel through time makes this a sensational sequel that any fan of the original movie must watch. It’s rare that we are gifted films with such depth and quality in all departments, and even more rare that we get them with the depth that having a predecessor tell part of the story can bring us. Danny Boyle and his team have managed to achieve something that carries a much larger punch than could have been expected of any sequel, and despite knowledge of Trainspotting 1 being paramount to much of the picture’s enjoyment, they have made T2 Trainspotting one of the first must-watch movies of the year.