If you are of roughly the same vintage as I am and from the UK, then there’s a good chance that you have Danny Boyle’s 1996 film Trainspotting seared into your brain as an undeniable cultural landmark. For a few months in 1996, Trainspotting was inescapably ubiquitous: you couldn’t move for posters of an emaciated, soaked Ewan McGregor, or songs off the soundtrack turning up everywhere, or people ripping off its very distinctive energy and style – it feels like half the bad British crime films and comedies of the late 90s and early 2000s are largely motivated by a hamfisted attempt to emulate Danny Boyle. Boyle himself went on to be arguably Britain’s most successful film director, McGregor went on to be a Jedi Knight, and most of the other lead cast members did pretty well for themselves, to say the least.
And I say this as someone who was initially rather dubious about the film (I hadn’t been especially impressed with Boyle’s previous movie, Shallow Grave) and only really came to it via Irvine Welsh’s book. I haven’t watched the movie in at least ten years and probably much longer, mainly because I suspect the nostalgic associations would be almost too much to bear, but the memory of it is still enormously vivid: Iggy Pop singing ‘Lust for Life’ at the start, Underworld doing ‘Born Slippy’ at the end, and in between the bit with the toilet, the bit with the linen, the bit with the OD and Lou Reed’s ‘Perfect Day’, and all the rest of it too.
You mess about with this kind of beloved cultural artefact at your peril, which is why I think I was a bit surprised to hear a sequel was in the works – Boyle didn’t seem like a sequel-friendly kind of guy, anyway (although I have my fingers crossed for another bio-zombie film) – but nevertheless, here it is: the oddly-monikered T2 Trainspotting. A bit late for the 20th anniversary of the original, but that’s what you get for associating your movie with the rail network, I suppose.
Two decades have passed for the characters, too, as the new film gets underway: Renton (McGregor) has used the £12,000 of drug money he stole from his friends at the climax of the first one to lay the foundations of a fairly conventional existence in Amsterdam. Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller) has abandoned heroin in favour of cocaine and is working in the hospitality industry, with a projected side-line in blackmail. The hapless Spud (Ewen Bremner) has been unable to establish himself in society, partly due to his inability to come to terms with daylight savings, and is eking out a tenuous existence as a recovering addict. Francis Begbie (Robert Carlyle), on the other hand, has spent the last twenty years at Her Majesty’s Pleasure – sometimes that’s the price of being a violent psychopath.
The quartet are drawn back together when Renton returns to Edinburgh for personal reasons and tries to reach out to Spud and Sick Boy. Both of them express their emotions at seeing him again loudly and robustly, but soon he is helping Sick Boy and his partner Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova) in their scheme to raise the funds for a ‘sauna’, with Spud recruited to help with the interior design. But Begbie has managed to execute a characteristically unhinged escape plan and is back on the streets again, and when he learns Renton is back in town, he has only revenge on his mind…
The original Trainspotting was, as I say, a real case of a group of people managing to catch lightning in a bottle, and the new movie doesn’t seem to have serious aspirations to match its impact – indeed, part of what the film is about is coming to terms with the fact that time moves on and your life changes, and that a person in their twenties has many more options than someone in their forties. What happened at the end of the first film seems to have sent all four main characters into a state of arrested development, so they are still largely defined by events from when they were young men, desperately nostalgic for the time of the first film when the pathways of their lives were still much more open. This is at least in part a necessary storytelling conceit, in order for them all to still be recognisably the same characters, but it’s also rich territory for the film to explore.
And it does so impressively. There are all the usual directorial whistles and bells from Boyle, which are no less than we’ve come to expect, and the nature of the project means he can employ all kinds of call-backs to the first film, some subtle, some obvious and knowing. There’s a degree of playfulness in the way the new film toys with audience expectations – elements of music from the original occasionally insert themselves into the soundtrack, and at one point a character sits down with his old vinyl copy of ‘Lust for Life’ but can’t bear to listen to more than the first split-second of it – but the film itself feels vital and relevant rather than merely nostalgic itself.
The plot is less digressive this time around, but John Hodge’s screenplay turns on a sixpence between moments of drama, black humour, and even suspense. It is all quite monumentally profane, and frequently rather vile, but also extremely funny and intelligent. There’s a moment of supreme comedy when Renton and Sick Boy sneak into a sectarian pub night, intent on robbing the attendees, and find themselves having to perform an improvised musical number instead – if there’s a funnier single scene this year, I’ll be pleasantly surprised.
Ultimately, though, this is quite a serious film about coming to terms with your youth, and its passing, and understanding how in thrall you can be to your own history. Boyle has said it is a film about masculinity, and that’s true, but it’s simply the case that most of his returning characters here are male (Kelly Macdonald returns as Renton’s old partner Diane, but only briefly). The film comes to life as well as it does because of the strength of the performances from all the key players – if nothing else, this movie is a reminder (to UK cinema audiences, at least) of what a very effective actor Jonny Lee Miller can be, given the right material. Anjela Nedyalkova also makes a good impression, given the calibre of the people she’s in the middle of.
I suspect the minimum intention for Trainspotting 2 was for it not to slime the memory of the original: well, I would say mission accomplished, and then some. Like the best of Boyle’s work, it manages to be entertaining while remaining thoughtful, realistic without being bleak. In the end, it suggests, life goes on, one way or another. So choose life.
Or choose movies. Choose good movies. Choose a great sequel. Choose this sequel.