Joyce Glasser reviews T2 Trainspotting (January 27, 2017)
Who was to know? Who could imagine? A sequel, after 20 years, to the coolest Scottish film in Tony Blair’s Cool Britannia, T2 Trainspotting is not the tired idea from ageing filmmakers driven by desperation to beat a dead horse. It is a sequel that completes and enhances the original. Boyle’s energetic style; fast editing; freeze frames, and strategic use of popular music as part of the action might owe a debt to Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas, but Trainspotting’s hallucinatory images, thick Scottish accents and kitchen-sink depiction of Britain’s drug culture were all its own. And now director Danny Boyle and writer Adrian Hodge are back, as is the original cast – now ranging in age from 40 (Kelly Macdonald) to 68 (James Cosmo, Mark Renton’s dad). But this time, the tone is one of regret, sadness, and failed lives.
In Trainspotting, Iggy Pop’s Lust for Life was driving Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor) and Daniel ‘Spud’ Murphy (Ewen Bremner) down Princes’ Street: two of the most self-destructive young characters in British cinema affirming their decision to choose life. In T2 Renton – who absconded to Amsterdam twenty years earlier with a sack of drug money that was to be divided amongst the four friends – falls off the treadmill of middle-aged life, collapsing onto the gym floor. Renton did not know what a gym was in 1996, but after 20 years he returns home a changed man. Who are you kidding?
As Renton tells an astonished and increasingly bitter Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller), the first old friend he visits, life is good. He works for a small business, has a house, a wife and two children, ‘one of each.’ Is that the way to greet an old friend whose own baby died of neglect and who was a victim of Renton’s greed? Of course not.
But Renton’s perfect life is all a bunch of lies. Renton was sacked from his job, divorced from his wife and there never were any kids. He might have returned to Leith after his heart acted up in the gym, determined to repay the money, but the real reason is a masochistic nostalgia for friends as stuck in life as he is.
Renton looks pretty good for 45 and even drags Spud out jogging, with beautiful vistas of Edinburgh all around them (Glasgow stood in for much of Edinburgh in 1996). Ironically, that’s one of the problems with T2. There are no liver marks, diabetes or even middle-aged spread. The four friends may be ungainfully employed and badly housed, but they are surprisingly trim, wrinkle free and healthy looking.
Sick Boy Williamson, who now goes by Simon, has ditched heroin and is a cocaine –addicted publican. But his derelict pub (which, in Irvine Welsh’s novel Porno, he has inherited from an aunt) is a front. Simon’s new partner, although more in the business, than sexual or romantic sense of the word, is Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova). She is the honey trap in their videotape-and-then-blackmail enterprise. Now it’s a frustrated Veronika’s turn to blackmail Simon, who still believes she is his girlfriend. She threatens to find another partner if he does not progress their ambitious plan to convert the pub into a thinly disguised brothel, but the money’s not there. Unless, of course, they can pass off their brothel as a community asset and apply for an Enterprise Investment Grant of £100,000…
Meanwhile, Spud, 20 years on, cannot shake his drug habit. He shakes, he snivels and tries to top himself. The terrific Shirley Henderson (wasted, as is Kelly MacDonald’s Diane, now a lawyer), reappears in a cameo as Gail, his long suffering wife. Spud knows he has failed Gail and his son, Fergus. There’s a lot of father–son relationship sentimentality in the film (and some tracks from Young Fathers), as the men discover the price they’ve paid for their self-absorbed, undisciplined youth. Even the psychopathic Begbie (Robert Carlyle) is not immune, but first he has to sink to new depths of depravity as a father figure. After escaping from prison, where he’s been festering for 20 years, Begbie needs a new partner in crime and pulls his reluctant son out of a hotel management course to show him the ropes.
The story, adapted every-so-slightly from Welsh’s novel, Porno, is one of revenge. Simon’s plan is make Renton believe that he is forgiven, only to really hurt him. But after spending time together, it’s clear that their old bromance lives on, and Simon ends up protecting Renton when Begbie pays him a surprise visit. Begbie, who is not fooled by Simon, soon spots Renton – in the toilet of a nightclub; the sequel’s reference to Trainspotting’s infamous toilet scene – and the chase is on.
There is a sub-plot in which Veronika encourages Spud to write up his memories of the past (that is, Trainspotting) and we are meant to believe they are publishable, giving Spud some hope for the future. However, Spuds’ memories prove primarily useful to the destructive, revenge-seeking Begbie.
Parts of T2 are truly funny. Simon and Renton decide to steal credit cards from the pockets of unwatched coats at the annual July 12th gathering of the Orange Order commemorating the 1690 Battle of Boyne. Their mission is interrupted by a suspicious, burly guard and they are forced up on stage to perform for the boisterous crowd. With Simon playing the one piano chord he remembers, Renton unexpectedly strikes gold with his invented chorus, ‘By the time the battle was over there were no more Catholics left’. The club is ecstatic and sings along. Fans of the Scottish novelist John Buchan, (or Alfred Hitchcock) might recall a similar scene in 39-Steps.
Despite nice touches like a fleeting David Bowie tribute, the filmmakers get caught between enshrining the original for fans and making a movie for today’s turbulent times. There are echoes of Trainspotting everywhere in T2 (note, for starters, the two school boys running down Princes’ Street when Spud emerges, stunned, from his boxing lesson). Renton’s Choose Life speech is cleverly updated for 2016, but is not entirely satisfying. He tells Veronika ‘Choose Life’ was taken from an old 1980s drug campaign slogan, but there is no replacement. There are echoes of the original sound track and Boyle inserts plenty of clips from the original which become part of this film. There are newly shot references as well, one of which elucidates the title. Like a growing number of middle-aged divorced children, Renton returns to his old bedroom in the family council house, but it’s even stranger now. The final scene summons up the memorable heroin withdrawal sequence when Renton is locked up in his bedroom with his demons.
But all of these tight links to the past prevent T2 from becoming a film for the present. At lot has happened to Scotland and the world in 20 years. True, his characters are not political men, but Trainspotting cannot deny its place in history.
You can watch the film trailer here: