In which a good Begbie from the future returns to glass enemies, not kill them.
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Choose winning an Oscar and creating the Olympic Opening Ceremony. Choose going to Hollywood and playing Sherlock Holmes or Obi-Wan Kenobi, if you must. But, above all, choose life before bringing the gang back together for a sequel to 1996’s Trainspotting.
It’s the passage of time that gives T2 Trainspotting its surprising emotional and intellectual heft. This is neither cash-in nor afterthought. It’s a carefully considered sequel, built not only in the image of the characters on the screen, but also the audience watching them. Everybody’s grown up, but not necessarily moved on: a date movie with an old flame.
“You’re a tourist in your own youth,” Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller)
tells Renton (Ewan McGregor) – but aren’t we all? Even down to the titular echo of another ’90s classic, T2 Trainspotting is a film steeped in the expectations of everyone who grew up with the original as a generational touchstone and the standard-bearer for great British cinema. There’s always the danger of pissing on the legacy, and that goes double when the characters themselves aren’t the most reliable of sorts. Fortunately, Danny Boyle and his reunited cast and crew are astute enough to understand that.
Rather than ape Irvine Welsh’s follow-up novel, Porno, Boyle leans instead into the earlier film’s reputation – using it as support, testing it for weaknesses, simultaneously celebrating and critiquing the good old days. This is a very modern, post-Linklater sequel, whose selfanalysis extends to literally leaving Trainspotting’s ghost up on the screen. The editing finds its rhythm in heart-stopping cross-cuts to the original movie, in which paunchy middle-aged stars are haunted by their thinner, fresher-faced forebears.
The characters, too, are ghosts of their past. Backstory is always tricky to get right in sequels; here, the tragedy is that there is no backstory. Renton, Sick Boy, Spud (Ewen Bremner) and
Begbie (Robert Carlyle) have been locked in different forms of stasis – marriage, addiction, prison – all brooding on the betrayal that ended Trainspotting. Despite smartphones and Snapchat, these guys have barely been touched by today’s culture, little better than the sectarian thugs that Renton and Sick Boy rip off, still dreaming of a near-mythological Golden Age.
The film’s smartest touch is the introduction of Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova), Sick Boy’s Bulgarian girlfriend. The polar opposite to the guys in gender, age and ethnicity, Veronika is the switched-on voice of 2017, daring to confront their reputation and see if it still sticks. It’s hard not to see her as Boyle’s self-reflexive voice of dissent against Trainspotting’s cast-iron classic status, and his awareness that there’s a new generation determined to do better.
Perhaps that’s why this blast from the past comes with so much ‘blast’, courtesy of Boyle’s relentless energy – when he and his regular DoP Anthony Dod Mantle get together, there isn’t a safe or boring shot in the film. Yet make no mistake, this is a middle-aged film, and it gradually slows as the knees give way. Trainspotting was built on momentum and this can’t compete, but there’s an equally satisfying kick to the sequel’s slow burn, as it settles into the lugubrious black comedy of Renton and Sick Boy trying to secure EU funding for a brothel.
It’s this level of emotional intelligence that lets you skate past the film’s speed bumps: the baggier structure, the reliance on conventional (if thoroughly enjoyable) set-pieces, such as Renton’s improvised anti-Catholic sing-song, or the sledgehammer-subtle scrapyard aesthetic. Mostly, though, it works because it gets the details spot-on, with John Hodge’s screenplay so sharp it can identify characters by their choice of swearword (“cunt”, “prick”).
That gives the actors enormous space to resurrect their youthful skins, still respectively cheeky, cynical, raging and hopeless, but able to convey a lifetime of regret in a furrowed brow. To some extent, regardless of where they’ve been, the familiarity of technique and performance suggests the actors have also been trying and failing to kick the habit. Have they been waiting for another spin of ‘Lust For Life’?
There’s such sly linkage between performer and performance that the roles become virtually autobiographical. McGregor/Renton is the prodigal son returning to his roots and rediscovering his form. Miller/Sick Boy keeps working, looking for the juicy project that will hit the jackpot. Carlyle/Begbie brings the noise, funnier and more sympathetic than before, an irresistible bogeyman. And Bremner/Spud is ignored at everyone’s peril – as the actor most typecast by his role, there’s a real satisfaction to Bremner delivering the story’s moral centre. Nostalgia’s a trap – it’s all about what you choose to do with it. Simon Kinnear
‘neither cash-in nor afterthought, this is a carefully considered sequel’
Renton had thought the queue for the ladies was bad…
TOGETHER AGAIN Renton and Sick Boy get a few things off their chests, while Spud ponders his next move.