Director: Danny Boyle
By Roderick Heath
Trainspotting was one of the signal cultural moments of the 1990s. After his helter-skelter debut, Shallow Grave (1994), Danny Boyle placed his name on the lips of the international caste of cineastes with his second work. Although set nearly a decade earlier, Trainspotting was the closest thing the decade’s cinema offered to a big screen avatar for the zeitgeist of the already waning grunge scene in music: grimy, blackly comic, pungent in its evocation of society’s margins and the up-yours attitude of its citizens. Adapting Irvine Welsh’s cult novel, Boyle and screenwriter John Hodge depicted a landscape of scruffs and dropouts making do, without a countercultural era to lend them glamour, on heroin and dubious friendship, finally torn apart by money in an ultimate act of self-liberation that was also, in aptly sarcastic manner, an act of obeisance at last to an entirely commercialised world. Trainspotting’s antic sense of humour and its equally vital if sometimes exceedingly grim depiction of the junkie were visualised by Boyle in ebullient cinematic terms. I remember describing it to a friend a few years later as A Hard Day’s Night’s (1964) evil twin, a comparison the film readily courted in quoting the Abbey Road cover. This sort of touch also confirms Trainspotting’s complicity in the Cool Britannia moment of the mid-‘90s, when new pride in the nation’s post-war cultural accomplishments surged in time with the oncoming Tony Blair era. As for me, like many, the film was a galvanising moment in my teen years, when the indie film scene was roaring at full blast and interesting moviemaking could come from anywhere and still find an eager audience. Now, at a time when everything old is new again in the movie theatre, revisiting beloved movies from beyond the usual roster of multiplex fodder gains a certain attractiveness, particularly when pitched as an investigation into nostalgic as a contemporary state of mind.
T2 Trainspotting is officially spun out of Welsh’s follow-up novel, Porno, but is as much about the original film, its place in the lives of anyone who saw it and loved it, as well as its unmistakeable lexicon of images and, perhaps even more crucially, sounds. This self-reflexive urge is both the most interesting aspect of T2 (the title itself is an act of cheek, appropriating the carefully groomed marketing contraction of another ‘90s hit, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, 1991) and its most irritating. Or to put it another way, it’s like having a friend rave on in your ear about how great the good old days were whilst occasionally stepping back and making fun of himself for his nostalgia: the cake is had and eaten too. Reacting to this sequel also means reckoning with passing time and shifting attitudes. Boyle, who seemed to me the coolest cat on the street back when I was a teen, has long since revealed himself as a creature of facetious cinematic energy whose work I soon started to dread more than anticipate. Boyle and favoured star Ewan McGregor followed their breakthrough hit with the now blessedly forgotten A Life Less Ordinary (1998), a raucous mess that fulfilled the threat of ‘90s alternative culture to turn into a caricature of itself in throwing out all narrative sense and instead linking a series of pop cultural pastiches, and then actor and director purportedly fell out acrimoniously over McGregor being displaced by Leonardo DiCaprio on Boyle’s next film, The Beach (2000). T2’s status as a reunion project adds a charge of subtext to the scenes of angry and recriminatory but ultimately forgiving confrontation between old friends. Steve Jobs, Boyle’s surprisingly measured if flagrantly theatrical 2015 release, suggested Boyle was capable of restraining himself still, and I hoped returning to this ground might provoke something latent in the director.
Boyle and Hodge here try to entwine the characters’ pining for a social past that was largely mythical with their own longing for their youth. The formerly dynamic duo of Mark Renton (McGregor) and Sick Boy, now going by his more mundane real name of Simon (Johnny Lee Miller), are now easily caught up in free-flowing rhapsodies about various national past touchstones in a way that feels less appropriate to these once-cynical drop-outs than to Boyle’s self-appointed status dating back to the London Olympics as the framer of the national psyche, proxies for an imagined audience of barroom mates for whom the original Trainspotting is a fixture along with George Best and James Bond instalments. The storyline here mimics the act of revisiting the past as Renton is driven back to Edinburgh after twenty years living in Amsterdam. The collapse of his childless marriage and impending joblessness, on top of a suddenly nascent heart problem, events he attempts at first to cover up, have compelled him to return home. Soon he’s walking along streets where wistful recall is forever accompanied by a low-key pang of anxiety, considering that he left Britain after ripping his mates off and absconding with the proceeds of a drug deal. Simon greets him by wrapping a pool cue around his ear, which is cute compared to what their vicious mate Francis ‘Franco’ Begbie (Robert Carlyle) will do when he meets up with Renton.
Begbie is currently incarcerated, serving a twenty-year stretch for his many crimes, but after he’s rejected yet again for parole, he contrives to have a fellow inmate stab him to get transferred to hospital, and then to escape. Meanwhile Simon has taken over his aunt’s old pub, but that building is a solitary monolith now amidst a bulldozed neighbourhood, leaving Simon trapped between a disappeared community and an oncoming wave of gentrification. To make extra cash, Simon sets up opportunities for blackmail, making clandestine recordings of his pseudo-girlfriend, Bulgarian prostitute Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova), in her romps with respectable clients. Once the visceral business of dealing with old betrayal is done, Renton and Simon quickly fall back into matey ways, to the point where Veronika sarcastically tells them, under the cover of a language they don’t understand, that they actually love each-other. Veronika and Renton quickly become lovers regardless, whilst Renton eagerly joins Simon in an enterprise to transform the pub into a brothel, an enterprise that demands capital, so they set about fleecing suckers whilst also applying for a business loan from a government panel. Meanwhile Begbie returns to his terrified wife June (Pauline Turner) and now-grown son Frank Jnr (Scot Greenan), only to experience impotence in bed and frustration with his wannabe hotelier son, whom he drags along with him on robberies. When Begbie visits Simon, he fobs him off with suggestions Renton is still in Amsterdam, but the two foes are doomed to encounter each-other in a rave palace toilet.
Part of the original Trainspotting’s cunning lay in the way it mused with carbolic acidity on the then still-recent sting of insult so many felt from the ‘80s conservative reaction, but refracted through the cracked lens of a bunch of fuck-ups whose personal deficiencies only gained relevance through that context. The characters’ mordant pronouncements on modern life had their true side, but there was an irony involved, as their own lives were revealed to be littered with jagged shards of tragedy and violence and brushes with death, their rebellion a method of slow suicide. By comparison, T2 cannot commit to any new cultural thesis. There’s a gag early in the film when Renton is met by a flotilla of female greeters at the airport, all dressed up like stars in the first reel of a porn film, who turn out to be immigrants. As this joke evinces, T2 buys not so subtly into the logic of Brexit, that the present is a deracinated joke and Britain is now full of foreigners living out the dreams that were those of locals however many years ago; this idea is literally the underpinning of the plot, as Veronika reproduces Renton’s arc from the original. The film’s most political interlude is also one that takes aim not at contemporary malfeasance but at the habits of backward-looking pockets of the British Isles, particularly a social schism that’s long been niggling the Scottish community, as Renton and Simon infiltrate a club for right-wing Protestants who still celebrate ancient victories over Catholics. As Renton quips, “They have something we don’t – an identity,” for they retain a folksy brand of communality that just happens to be based in sleazy sectarian prejudices. Renton and Simon bluff their way out when they’re almost unmasked by improvising a song about killing Catholics, and then fleece many of their bank accounts simply by punching in the date of the Battle of the Boyne.
Renton himself can’t even bear to listen to Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life,” the original film’s thunderous theme, on his old turntable, as the emotions it stirs are too intense. Meanwhile Danny ‘Spud’ Murphy (Ewen Bremner), the fourth pillar of the surviving gang, has relapsed into addiction after trying to settle down with old girlfriend Gail (Shirley Henderson) and their young son. Spud’s attempt at suicide is narrowly averted by Renton’s arrival, and as well as coaching the two eager entrepreneurs, Veronika pushes along Spud’s attempt to supplant his mania for heroin with a mania for writing down his experiences. Following the lead of Porno, T2 substantiates Spud as Welsh’s stand-in in this, the most wretched of the group whose scrappy creative gifts will nonetheless finish up the most viable for any real survival and prosperity. By contrast Renton and Simon’s labours add up to nothing when they’re leaned on by a gangster who nixes their project and dumps them in the woods, whilst Begbie romps around the city, alienated from his family and with no object in mind more profound than to visit cruel revenge upon Renton. The other three make an excursion into the hills to pay tribute to the missing member of their old gang, Tommy, whose death, Simon reminds Renton, was partly his fault in introducing him to the junkie lifestyle. Whereupon Renton reminds Simon in turn about how his neglect when high also killed his infant child. When the business loan is approved unexpectedly, Renton and Simon find themselves each trying to work up the nerve, and self-justification, to rip off the other man and flee to A Better Life 2.0.
The major pleasure of T2 is seeing these actors snap so confidently back into their old roles, many relishing the new dimensions of the original’s rather Hogarthian sprawl of gangly, hyped-up caricatures. Miller’s performance here is a splendid roadmap of egotistical traits that have lost the sexy edge they had when he was a twenty-something and settled into mere scuzzy pathos: far from tongue-swapping Es with girlfriends, now he’s only gotten it up far enough to bang Veronika once, and prefers to get high and watch music videos on his big screen telly. Bremner, who has gained the charmed career natural character actors know, plays Spud with a blend of keen empathy for his flailing as he tackles the chance to regain control over his life, whilst retaining an edge of unhinged, almost alien attitude to his physical comedy, prancing like a denuded spider through some scenes, quivering like jelly in others, and sometimes finally locating the lode of character and creative zest under all his timorous, life-shy unease. Carlyle’s act as Begbie is just as uncanny as ever in describing the terrifying side of the Scots character, that inchoate berserker will, but it’s stretched here in some discomforting ways, as Begbie finally reveals a self-aware streak as he finally makes peace with his son. Welsh turns up playing the same part he did in the original, former small-time drug dealer-turned-fence Mikey Forrester.
McGregor is by comparison not so well served as the straight man to these freakazoids: Renton’s successful but only temporary integration into the world at large has left him bereft of the outsider cheek and verve that once served him well, and it’s not until half-way through the film that he’s allowed a glimmer of the bard-like state of cynical ferocity that so famously marked him in the original. This comes as he explains the meaning of his and his mates’ old, sarcastic “Choose Life” motto and updates it to take a poke at the bullshit of the present day. One problem here, however, is that the original Trainspotting was rooted securely in its portrayal of an era, an era that was already slightly antique when the film was made: by this logic, T2 should be set in the late Blair era. But the reference points here are much hazier and generally present-tense, and when Renton delivers an updated “Choose Life” rant, it’s a sprawl of whinges directly transcribed from a million Twitter accounts: “Choose rape jokes. Choose slut-shaming, revenge porn…Choose 9/11 never happened.” The angry thrill of rejecting officially sanctioned bromides has now become a SJW’s list of bugbears, as a vast slice of society at large has stolen Renton’s thunder but without the irony. In its best moments T2 coherently visualises the feeling of being plunged back into the past in the frame of the present, when that past was so much more vibrant if also often terribly ugly, as in a moment when Spud finds himself on a familiar street and remembers events that pierce him to the core – and the viewer, as those events are the iconic opening moments of the original.
T2 locks itself into this pattern and can’t get out of it, reproducing the fault of its characters. These middle-aged goons are left looking back perpetually to a time when, however squalid they were, they were at least confident in their disasters. Building an entire film around this reflex is a dodgy move at best: long after the point where this film should have moved on to new business, the filmmakers are still busy rehashing the old. Almost everything that takes place in this entry is beholden in some way to the original, rather than presenting a new piece of art that properly creates an interesting present-tense. T2 reminded me of some other attempts to synthesise second acts for reasonably serious hits. One unfavourable comparison is Martin Scorsese’s The Color of Money (1986), which expertly crafted a mature continuation of a not-so-dissimilar character portrait whilst avoiding miring itself in retracing old steps. Trainspotting’s concentration on characters barely holding on to a place in society and thus moving from scam to scam might easily have loaned itself to such fresh contexts, but instead T2 takes the least adventurous course, never quite making truly effective drama and only occasionally wringing fresh and outrageous comedy out of the thin plot. Porno was more concerned with Spud’s reinvention as an artist and the other characters’ gleeful repetitions of the past. Boyle and Hodge make gestures towards rendering T2 as a kind of work-in-progress, post-modern depiction of its own creation as Veronika urges Spud to give us an ending to his tale. But to call these gestures hamfisted feels excessively kind. Teasing snatches of familiar music keep bobbing up on the soundtrack, calling back to the original’s anthemic use of “Lust for Life” and Underworld’s “Born Slippy,” but the new soundtrack is very forgettable, or littered with tracks straight out of Boyle’s iPod shuffle.
The female characters retained from the original are left holding the bag in a way that confirms how suffocating the portrait of male ageing angst has become. Henderson, who loaned mischievous humour to the original, is reduced to a barely-glimpsed walk-on, a forlorn martyr to Spud’s fecklessness. Sadly, Kelly Macdonald returns only very briefly as Diane, Renton’s one-time randy, underage party girl pick-up. Now she’s a besuited, coolly confident lawyer installed in bright and shiny offices, whom Renton and Veronika hire to spring Simon from prison after his blackmailing racket rebounds. The spark in Macdonald’s eye as she teases Renton about his latest too-young girlfriend gives the film a momentary spark of knowing, randy energy that Veronika can’t match in spite of Nedyalkova’s admirable poise even wearing cavorting in a strap-on dildo: the foreign hooker girlfriend looking for her chance is a little too cliché a figure. Indeed, too much of the film’s would-be biting commentary has shop-worn aspect, like the opening that finds Renton not running through the streets but on a treadmill, an arch way to tell us he’s devolved into just another yuppie, and the gangster’s punishment of Renton and Simon’s disrespect by leaving them naked and forcing them to venture their back home, a sequence that feels like it stumbled in out of another movie. A scene in which Begbie reconciles with his son feels entirely phony, a sop to the imperative in so many modern films to offer some kind of maudlin connection even as everything we know about Begbie shouts at us that he’s an insensate psychopath without such capacity for introspection. Now Begbie has traumatic memories of a drunken father and a streak of class rage. But in the very next scene he’s carrying around a bag fool of tools intending violation and dismemberment of Renton. So who cares what his issues are?
The original Trainspotting was a daft ode to its own bratty energy but it was in that way true to its characters and their smart-arse viewpoint on pop cultural mores. Boyle’s stylistic showiness was attuned to the frenetic highs of junkie life and to its wilful blindness and weak grasp on reality – moments of gouging tragedy passed by noted and then lost amongst oblivious recourse into more drugs, vignettes of fantasy and kitschy self-mockery coming at you with such fervour they coalesced into a kind of sense. Here, the mood demands something totally different, and if Boyle had been less concerned with re-establishing his hip bona fides he might have tethered this tale to an artistic palette rooted in the bleak feeling of being washed up after a shipwreck. Instead, Boyle’s style settles into weak self-imitation, replete with canted camera angles and freeze-frames of no function, and random film references – Spud imagining himself as the hero of Raging Bull (1980), and a finale that spoofs Blade Runner’s (1982) climax. Boyle pulls off one great shot when Renton first approaches Simon’s pub, a monolith in the midst of an apocalyptic landscape, remnant outpost of an age and a culture that has literally upped sticks and moved on. Indeed, Anthony Dod Mantle’s photography is perhaps the best thing about the film, even when Boyle makes him do nonsensical things. The film does still offer its occasional comedic coups, like the sequence with the Protestant clique, and the cleverly deadpan sequence in which Renton and Begbie finally encounter each-other, sharing cross words through a toilet stall without initially recognising the other’s voice, only then for the penny to slowly drop for both. And there are images that sharply capture the evanescent emotions Boyle is chasing, as when Renton watches Diane in her office from the street, the outsider looking in and pining for all lost time.
After moving in circles for what seems like an eternity, T2 finally starts barrelling towards a climax as Begbie finally encounters Renton, and he leaves his quarry with a gashed arm as Renton flees him. Soon Begbie tracks down Spud and is momentarily stalled in his quest when he starts making Spud read his written anecdotes to him, taking great pleasure in hearing his old sadisms mythologised, only then to find the same way that Renton cut Spud in on the money he stole. At Veronika’s behest, Spud aids her in filching the money the lads got off the government, before trying to warn them about Begbie’s murderous intentions. But he arrives too late, as Begbie has already entered Simon’s pub, forcing his former friends to try and battle him. The trouble is that once the actual story pace of T2 picks up (as opposed to its shot pace, which remains stroboscopic), it stops making sense, and resolutions to the various plot lines carry unusually little weight. That’s in part because unlike his younger self, Boyle, like many a recovering cynic, has become an indulgent and syrupy filmmaker, loathe to drag any of his characters too deep off into the woods. Unsurprisingly for the guy who made me sit through Slumdog Millionaire (2008), far from revisiting this material to shock current cinema out of its lethargic state, Boyle instead has, in spite of the occasional bit of male nudity and his empty showiness as director, removed the fangs from his creation. T2 isn’t a bad film by any stretch, and yet I found it a profoundly disappointing, even dispiriting one on many levels. Not because of its melancholic streak, but because it doesn’t know how to frame that melancholia. Something I’ve long suspected is now hatching out in movie land: after decades whining about Boomer nostalgia, the Generation X equivalent threatens to be utterly insufferable. Where are the worst toilets in Scotland of yesteryear?