Director: Danny Boyle
Stars: Ewan McGregor, Ewen Bremner, Jonny Lee Miller
In 1996 Trainspotting was the right film at the right time. Scottish national pride, English national pride, British national pride were in an almost euphoric ascendancy. Britpop was brilliant (or so it seemed) and it’s biggest successes were crossing borders. Sports fans were happy because Euro ’96 and the doldrums of a long bleak winter of conservatism looked like they were about to be swept away by the bright new dawn of New Labour. It didn’t hurt that Danny Boyle’s film was actually really fucking good. It felt dynamic, fresh. And, with Irvine Welsh’s prose contorted for the screen thanks to the sterling work of John Hodge, it landed with a dose of authenticity. Even when it joked and played with you, it felt as though it came from a working class wellspring of raw truth. And that was so in that year.
Twenty years on, T2 Trainspotting lands in a very different Britain. National pride is hard to come by seeing as all our futures look like they’re ready to get sold off to the highest bidder, or maybe just the first. Conservatism looks like it’s back for the long haul again, and Danny Boyle’s decided to commit a midlife crisis to film and flood our cinemas with it. And people will go in their hundreds of thousands. And it might even feel like a decent enough sequel to some. Hell, at least 80% of this film is genuine new footage as well.
But it’s not a good film. Not at all. It’s about as good as a seasonal ITV special of a sitcom you’ll watch because there’s probably nothing else on (i.e. who can be bothered to make a decision?). Those kernels of truth that helped make the original feel so vital and energised are nowhere to be found, instead replaced with bitterness and a reliance on hokey and contrived comedy scenarios, most of which insult any notion of reality. The ballsy confidence of ripping the film’s title from the distracted paws of James Cameron isn’t evidenced anywhere else. This film is the confused balding man you see in WH Smiths scratching his head as he wonders where all the magazines like Maxim and loaded have gone.
Renton (Ewan McGregor) returns to Edinburgh after 20 years in Amsterdam in a muddled effort to make amends with the friends he betrayed in London all those years ago. Simon (Jonny Le Miller) is eking out a sketchy existence blackmailing the middle classes with the aid of his supposed girlfriend Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova), hoovering up as much cocaine as he can get his hands on. Spud (Ewen Bremner) has been a junkie his entire life, something he’s in the process of ending when Renton comes knocking at the door.
And Begbie (Robert Carlyle)? He’s as close to a plot as T2 particularly gets, having escaped prison in a stupefying manner; a series of events as lazy and unbelievable as his ability to evade recapture by, essentially, going home and sitting down. I guess even the HM Prison Service don’t want him back. Conspicuously, none of these characters have advanced or particularly matured since we last saw them. Nor will they over the next two hours…
…Actually, that’s not true. Spud has an arc, and it’s a nice one, even if Boyle comes a hair’s breadth from ruining it with his meta, signposted coda. The points this film has at the bottom there? A large portion of those are for Spud.
In the main though, we find our anti-heroes confused and despondent that the world doesn’t give a fuck about them and probably never did. Renton gets to rejig his “Choose life” routine, only now it sounds like the rant of a man upset that things just aren’t the way they used to be. You keep expecting an “In my day…” to reshape the mantra entirely. Meanwhile Boyle and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle skip around trying to find the most bafflingly ugly angles from which to capture this whimpering last hurrah (let it be the last hurrah), presumably in an effort to coax a little of that lightning that’s never getting back in the bottle.
Some of the funny lands, but it’s only as good as something you might catch in a Men Behaving Badly repeat on UK Gold. There’s little in the way of drama or meaningful direction (ironic given how propulsive and kinetic Boyle’s cinema is known to be). The returning female cast members are wasted; Kelly MacDonald and Shirley Henderson are afforded little more than cameos. You may recall how MacDonald formed part of the famous ‘line up’ poster art for the first film, yet she’s been excised from the marketing for this one? There’s a reason for that. While we’re comparing posters, Google this film’s primary one sheet and take a close look at Jonny Lee Miller’s expression. That expression tells you much of what you need to know about this movie.
There’s nothing pressing, new or interesting about T2; everything here is about what’s past. Even its feeble semblance of a story is wholly concerned with the events of the first film. It suggests that new ground is an impossibility for these people, perhaps a reflection of the reductive choices of Brexit Britain? The film plays heavily on nostalgia for those glory days of old, featuring a lot of previously seen footage. In the main this reminds you that Boyle really struck gold first time out. I don’t mind nostalgia per se. But here it underlines the sense that, this time, he’s panning for gold but just sifting dirt.
I’ll grant that there are occasional moments here. Fleeting glimmers where the old magic might just represent itself. But they stutter and die amid so much wonky-angled, lager-swilling ambivalence. Boyle is so much in the thrall of his own legacy that he’s forgotten to forge a new one. The soundtrack speaks volumes. While it’s nice to hear Young Fathers (I guess Boyle downloaded their Mercury winning album Dead from a few years back), who in their right mind thought a Prodigy remix of “Lust For Life” was going to be a good thing? Like T2 at large its a confused facsimile that only serves to remind you that the original got it right, and that this one’s a cluttered mess distinctly lacking in purpose. Begbie pops Viagra like candy; the results are too little too late.
Trainspotting was one of the defining films of the 1990’s. T2 Trainspotting isn’t even the defining film of this January.