Movie Review: “T2: Trainspotting”

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Image from Digital Spy.

The best way to watch T2: Trainspotting is in a room full of Scots. I understand this may be an impractical suggestion for those of you who live outside of my nation, but I cannot understate the buzz of enthusiasm that radiated from the cinema screening I attended today. It was like going to a Star Wars movie. A lot of Scots have waited a long time for the sequel to the 1996 classic adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s book, although many of us carried much trepidation with that excitement, given the sheer weight of the cultural influence the first film carries. After all, how could a film that exploded onto the scene with such verve and daring keep up that momentum 20 years later, with an older cast and crew and all those expectations?

That Danny Boyle has crafted a bold, visual feast of a film that’s equal parts laugh-out-loud and desperately sad is nothing short of genius: That it’s a worthy successor to the original is nigh on a miracle.

Two decades since Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor) betrayed his friends and chose life over skag, he returns to Edinburgh older, wearier and crushing under the realization that middle-age ennui has taken over. His former buddies Spud (Ewan Bremner), Simon “Sick Boy” (Jonny Lee Miller) and Begbie (Robert Carlyle) are living their own lives under variously grim circumstances, but none of them can entirely shake away their past, and that’s partly because none of them truly want to.

T2, like its ensemble, cannot escape the looming shadow of the past, as the film features flashbacks, the youthful versions of the characters intruding on their modern life, numerous callbacks – including a reworked version of the iconic Choose Life speech – and some literal readings from the original book, here in the form of a stream-of-consciousness diary kept by Spud. Some moments fall flat, like the Choose Life speech, which packs less of the original’s punch and feels obviously shoehorned in for fan-service’s sake, but others are beautiful in their stylised verve. Boyle has learned much in the interim period since the first film (at the time only the second film he had ever directed), and puts those Oscar winning skills to good use.

As a former Edinburgh resident, it’s a true thrill to see the city on the big screen so full of grit and glamour (the first film was mostly shot in Glasgow). The tram-line carries Renton to the city centre, overflowing with lights and a sheen previously missing from his last jaunt down Princes Street; the camera peers through the classic corner windows of many a Bruntsfield Park building as we listen in on an argument between Sick Boy and his sort-of girlfriend Veronika; the trendy bars of gentrified Leith are contrasted with the grotty hovel by the pier run by Sick Boy. Like us all, the city evolves. Kudos to cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle for such stellar work.

Yet that evolution, that necessary law of nature, is what our ensemble have spent so long trying to fight. Much of Trainspotting’s in-yer-face punchiness comes from its characters’ delight at wasting their youth in smack dens and the saddest public toilets imaginable; here, Renton and company are forced to acknowledge the inevitable – they’ve gotten old. Renton’s mid-life crisis has hit hard; Sick Boy’s life of petty crime is unsustainable but it’s all he knows; Spud is haunted by his past and knows he’ll forever be a junkie; and Begbie’s fury, while still potent, has worn him down. There are fewer options open to them all, and the only ways they can advance forward are by returning to their old ways; or, at least, that’s what they keep telling themselves, because in truth, they enjoy it far too much to say no to one another. Even then, the joys of old pleasures – and old highs – hold little power now, and the hunt for new thrills to plug the gap is increasingly limited.

Hello, boys! Image from Total Film.

While the cast are uniformly strong, with each getting their moments to shine, the true star of the film is Ewan Bremner. Spud has always been the naïve heart of the world of Trainspotting: A sweet but dim soul who seems the closest to innocence amongst his circle of heroin-shooting and thieving friends, the one whose troubles weigh heaviest on his shoulders, partly because he seems to be the only one who remembers a lot of it. Bremner balances goofy charm with aching vulnerability, as he embraces his old friends all the while knowing how it must end.

The film struggles at times with its tendencies to self-mythologise and pay expected penance to the iconography of the previous film, but it also exudes incredible power as a cinematic echo of the past, re-contextualised for a generation that’s supposed to know better. While not all of the lightning-in-a-bottle magic of the first film is there, T2: Trainspotting carries its legacy with verve and aplomb, demonstrating the best of Boyle and the best of Scottish film.

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