Milo Garner reviews the hotly anticipated Trainspotting sequel, T2.
Returning to his twenty-year old apex Trainspotting, Danny Boyle presents us with T2 (or according to the marketers, T2 Trainspotting), taking us back to the lives of those lovable scag addicts that have since become part of British pop culture. It’s both a film that appreciates its characters and their progress, but also embraces its legacy, ensuring ample and effective references to its past.
The first and most important part of T2’s success is like its forebear – having strong characters, consistent characters. Happily, Boyle managed to secure all the original cast members for this venture, and none of them disappoint in their acting ability. Finding the characters twenty years later the audience are left with an initial feeling of difference: Renton seems to have found a good life, Spud is in group therapy, Sick Boy in a slightly more professional breed of scam, and Begbie (perhaps reformed) in prison. But as they interact with one another they find themselves returning to their old selves – returning to a feeling of unending childhood, a theme explored in the first film (think Renton living with his parents in a room wall-papered with trains). An example of this is after Sick Boy and Renton reconcile, and find themselves messing around with Snapchat filters, watching football, and generally playing about like kids despite pushing their mid-forties. Even with appearances of having grown up, little progress has been made. This is supported by occasional flashbacks to the two when they were young boys (captured in a very realistic home-video style) – not much has changed for them mentally, even if their circumstances couldn’t be more different. Though not directly referenced, the audience is reminded of a conversation the two had in the first film, where Sick Boy was discussing his ‘theory of life’. He says, ‘you’ve got it, and then you lost it, and it’s gone forever,’ and as Renton surmises it: ‘so we all get old and we can’t hack it anymore.’ There is a sense that these characters are trying to delay the inevitable implied in these words, Renton through travel; Sick Boy through cocaine; Spud through family; and Begbie through a renewed crime spree – an attempt to retain their youthful spark long since gone. This is reflected in the filmmaking itself, which is similar to the original but lacking a bit of that youthful vitality that so punctuated the first.
Another theme that the film takes on, one not quite present in the first, is that of nostalgia. This is somewhat meta given the nature of the film itself as, arguably, an exercise in nostalgia, but it ties quite well to the above-mentioned perpetual childhood. It is even directly referenced at one point, when the boys go to visit Tommy’s resting place, Sick Boy saying ‘nostalgia, that’s why you’re here, you’re a tourist in your own youth.’ This references the characters themselves revelling in the past, the film in its exploration of its own heritage, and indeed the audience, many of whom grew up with Trainspotting and are taking a trip back to the past as it were. If the opening of Underworld’s Born Slippy isn’t working as a high-powered nostalgic-anaesthetic for a fair demographic of the viewership, it’s doing little else after twenty years of irrelevancy. But rather than being a sort of weight holding the film down, such as the obsession with reliving the past in The Force Awakens, the nostalgic element in fact allows for the film’s finest, and most touching, flourishes. Some of its best moments exist as a seamless blend between past and present. At one point Spud sees his younger self and friends running from the police as in a famous scene from the original, with his person superimposed on the old footage without error. The fact that the original was shot on film, with a noticeably softer and grainier image than the new digital image, only exaggerates this feeling of past against present. On the negative side the constant reference to the first film, while effective, does show up some of the weaknesses of this new entry. The special effects (think Renton swimming down his toilet to the ethereal sounds of Brian Eno) aren’t quite as good here, the chase scenes not as electric, and some of its edge has certainly been lost – again, this might reflect the characters but is no excuse for inferior filmmaking, even if it still works for the most part.
The soundtrack, given its inimitable pedigree, should also be mentioned – and it just about manages to live up. Featuring a nice mix of new and old songs, the music accompanies the visuals well and stands as a fine playlist in its own right. Young Fathers are probably the most noticeable new addition, as they bring a hip-hop vibe to the soundtrack that was formerly absent, and other newcomers featured are indie heroes Wolf Alice and Fat White Family. With the latter it felt a little like a missed opportunity, given their typically raucous music, that would have done well to soundtrack the antics of the film, instead their one track is relegated to the end of the credits – but at least it’s there. For the older tunes there is a reappearance of Born Slippy by Underworld as the main theme, but also some songs by Queen, Blondie, and Frankie Goes to Hollywood. They’re all fairly good and have a nice variety – nothing quite on the level of Perfect Day, but good enough. Other returning tracks include a brief reprisal of Eno’s Deep Blue Day and, necessarily, Iggy Pop’s Lust for Life, via a pounding remix by The Prodigy.
Through the above it might be apparent that the actual narrative of the film isn’t mentioned much, and that’s mainly because it’s one of its least interesting aspects. In short, upon escaping prison Begbie is set on revenge against Renton, while Renton and Sick Boy cook up a scheme to set up a brothel with the help of Spud, who is trying to kick his addiction. To this motley crew another is added, quite strangely, in the form of Veronika. She’s an Eastern European immigrant who, for reasons not quite clear, becomes remarkably involved (economically and emotionally) with a load of men double her age without any clear reason. As a device she functions as an outlet for the main characters’ doubts and thoughts, but otherwise seems underdeveloped and out of place – perhaps she’s intended to represent Scotland’s more diverse population, but that could have been done with a little more tact if true. Conversely, one character who actually gets a better deal here than in the original film is Spud, whose character arc in the 1996 film was somewhere between abandoned and non-existent. This time we get to see him battle with his addiction and find a replacement for it, and ultimately find some purpose in the world. It’s affirming stuff and works as an effective counterpoint to the cynicism seen elsewhere in the film, especially in the modernised version of Renton’s ‘Choose Life’ monologue. Though when mentioning addiction it is also interesting that heroin very much takes the back seat in this venture, and the one scene that really features it seems to exist more to sate the Trainspotting ‘brand’ than any real story concern. The troubles of the characters here are not (and, perhaps, never were) intrinsically related to that drug.
Considered, as it should be, an extension of the first film, T2 can be regarded as a success. It suffers a little in its narrative and technical filmmaking, but thematically and referentially makes for an excellent companion piece to Trainspotting. It should make for an enjoyable return for those who watched the original back when it came out, those who caught it recently on Channel 4, and the rest who fall somewhere in between. It also features a fair few trains, so for any who mistakenly went into Trainspotting and got something totally different to what they were expecting, there’s something here for them too.
Featured Image: Tristar Pictures