Review: T2 Trainspotting

Choose returning to Edinburgh. Choose being a tourist in your own youth. Choose watching history repeat itself

Image: Sony Pictures Entertainment

★★★★☆
Director: Danny Boyle
Starring: Ewan McGregor, Ewen Bremner, Jonny Lee Miller, Robert Carlyle
Length: 1
Rating: 18

This review contains minor spoilers. 

T2: Trainspotting (which I will refer to as T2, sorry James Cameron) is a direct continuation of the original. Same cast, same director, same script writer. I’ll pause here to explain that reviewing this movie is somewhat impossible without spoiling the original. So, if you still haven’t seen Trainspotting please fix this immediately.

Anyway.

Choose returning to Edinburgh. Choose seeing your old mates again. Choose reopening old wounds. Choose being a tourist in your own youth. Choose watching history repeat itself.

Renton of course is the figure in question, and his return sparks the reunion of the old gang – still somewhat at it, despite the passing of 20 years. Some holding resentment for Renton’s betrayal, others rage. Everyone, Renton included, is still being shaped by his betrayal and their communal past. So if Trainspotting was a tale of youth and ultimately about an optimistic future, this is the opposite. All of our characters attempt to reconcile their present with their past, while lamenting what could have been.

In any case this a two-tier tale of nostalgia. The twenty-year gap between films means that yes this is a very loose adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s Porno, which occurs after a time jump, but also that Trainspotting has transcended into the realm of nostalgia for fans. This is how the film works, because when Renton reminisces about the past it’s not just to distract the audience with a ‘remember this!’ moment, which recent sequels have shamelessly done, but to enhance the emotional tension between the present and the past. Our nostalgia is parallel to the character’s nostalgia, and this effect is far from cheap, it’s central to the film.

This effect is both the greatest strength and perhaps the weakness of the movie. Anyone who is a fan and has invested in this world is naturally going to a have far more involved experience. Obviously having seen the original is a prerequisite, this film continually references visually and otherwise back to the first, to the extent that footage is incorporated. Although this works pretty seamlessly. Beyond that though, understanding the overall arch and history of these characters is going to increase the film’s impact. This is not to undermine the quality of T2 in it’s own right, but it is a sequel based off the characters and the ending of another film. It’s a sequel that builds upon another film, that uses the audience’s awareness and affinity for this other film. Does that limit who can enjoy this film? Perhaps, but does every film need to pander to the entire human race? Why even watch a sequel without liking the previous installment?

T2 relies on the assumption that you know and love these characters, because unlike the original it’s an ensemble piece, spending more time on the group and their own individual struggles. Spud for example comes completely into his own and the journey his character takes is one of the highlights of the film, especially how it ties into the novel. Begbie is less of a constant hurricane and has moments of quiet reflection, as does Sickboy (now going by Simon) despite his wry mask. Renton and Simon’s friendship has more meat to it this time around, and across the board we get a bit more backstory, which actually fleshes out the original too.

Aside from the main quartet of Spud, Begbie, Simon and Renton, we also have the character of Veronica. She’s Simon’s ‘sort of girlfriend’ who’s involved with the Sauna/Brothel business venture. As the main female lead she does draw comparisons with Diane, she’s not quite as dynamic or spunky on screen, but the parallels seem pretty intentional. History ends up repeating itself in several ways. Mark, she’s too young for you.

Really every other character outside the main male leads suffer from peripheral focus, but the time on the leads isn’t wasted. The actors all do a brilliant job at a hard task. Returning to characters from their own youth, then having to make those characters recognisable yet developed. While also competing with the now iconic status of them. Abrasive, funny and captivating. Am I referring to the first or second film? Luckily we are in a position where both is true, no one drifts into imitation territory.

Another area to be addressed is the soundtrack, a major factor in the success of the original, meaning tough competition and a lot to live up to. Instead of exemplifying youth culture, this time it’s about the clash between past and present, an eclectic mix of 80s tunes, recent releases, and remixed versions of Iggy Pop and Underworld. It’s reminiscent in style, still carrying the emotional beats of the film, creating atmosphere and keeping the plot up to pace. Boyle once more uses the music to encapsulate our characters and their place in the modern world. The music cues are still good and the choices mainly work. My personal highlights? Blondie’s ‘Dreaming’, ‘Relax’ by Frankie goes to Hollywood, Wolf Alice’s ‘Silk’, and ‘Shotgun Mouthwash’ by High Contrast.

So the film is a character piece and focusses on our relationship with the past (both onscreen and off), but did Trainspotting really need a sequel? Some may say no, however I’d argue that the justification is in the quality of the movie itself. It’s dastardly fun and immersive, wildly funny and some of the scenes I don’t doubt I’ll return to again and again. Shout out to the “karaoke” scene.

The grungy look of the original isn’t quite here, it’s a much slicker affair, and it’s hard to claim that this film is as stylised or iconic. Yet, T2 is still quirky in style and clever in dialogue, maybe if it wasn’t following such an established original these attributes would be more obvious.

When comparing the two, Trainspotting seems more of a time capsule than this, although with our near constant recycling of films in the shape of reboots and sequels… Maybe this is quite reflective. Certainly returning to the ‘good old days’ age is a narrative being perpetrated in politics, fashion, music and general culture. We’re obsessed with the past and trying to reconcile with it, just like Renton.

This film won’t have the same cultural impact as the original, simply because of the fantastic advertising campaign for Trainspotting, its link to youth culture, and the fact it was new. This is an introspective film, and a sequel, and that doesn’t stop it being entertaining or having a lot to say, but Trainspotting was ground-breaking, a phenomenon and that’s hard to compete with. There’s real passion behind this film which is seen in the quality of direction, the script and acting, and I doubt they did it for the money. I dread to think of the universe where “Trainspotting 2!” is a dumbed down rehash of the original. There’s less skag this time, but T2 has a story to tell, it has characters who are entertaining. It stands out from the procedural film-making rife among sequels. Boyle schools those directors on a craft he’s mastered. This is a film that shows not all sequels have to be bad. It’s a revelation rather than a revolution, it’s hard to top a classic.

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