T2: Trainspotting Review

Ewan McGregor and the rest of the gang are back in Danny Boyle's sequel. Here's our review of the unexpectedly moving Trainspotting 2.

Time can play cruel tricks. A recent strain of Hollywood movie showed us the cosy side of nostalgia – the dinosaurs roaring again in Jurassic World, the Millennium Falcon taking flight in Star Wars: The Force Awakens but there can be a bittersweet, even cruel side to the lure of old memories.

For Renton (Ewan McGregor), heading back to his old stomping ground in Edinburgh after 20 years is akin to opening a box of old photographs. There’s a comfort at seeing old faces, but then the regret starts flooding back: the drugs, the alcohol, the friends he’s lost and – if you remember the original Trainspotting – abruptly left behind.  

This latter point is a particularly sore one among Renton’s old comrades, Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller) and Begbie (Robert Carlyle), who are older but still mired in their own personal failings. Sick Boy has given up the heroin, only to fall into a hideously expensive cocaine habit. He has an eastern European girlfriend, Nikki (Anjela Nedyalkova) roughly half his age, with whom he plans to set up a bordello in the run-down pub he’s inherited from his relatives. Begbie’s greying round the edges yet as sociopathic as ever, and still harbors a grudge against Renton for what he did at the end of the original film.

Again based on a novel by Irvine Welsh (in this instance, Porno, adapted by returning screenwriter John Hodge) the past weighs heavily over T2 – which is unsurprising, given the original film’s place in the ’90s zeitgeist. Arriving in the midst of Britpop and the somewhat toe-curling ‘Cool Britannia’ jamboree in the media, Trainspotting was a potentially sombre drama given a hip shot of adrenaline thanks to its amusingly squalid storytelling (adapted from Irvine Welsh’s best-selling novel) and Danny Boyle’s restlessly creative direction.

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T2 cleverly deals with its legacy head on. Rather than reference the past, it actively explores the nature of nostalgia and memories from multiple angles. This is displayed most tellingly in a scene where Renton and Sick Boy get high and ramble on incoherently about how everything was better in 1974: when George Best was still in his prime and kicking a ball about, and before the first McDonald’s opened in the UK. Sick Boy’s girlfriend looks on, mystified and bored, and it’s here that T2 appears to make a useful point; nostalgia can be as narcotic and cosseting as a drug habit. Nostalgia takes the edge off the here and now; the warm glow of the past removing the chill from the harsh, disappointing present.

Begbie, meanwhile, clings onto memories in a different way: his bitterness and anger, which he’s turned into a full-time hobby. Using his last ounce of cunning to bust his way out of prison, Begbie cuts a swathe of violence through the drearier parts of the city, with Renton squarely in his sights. Spud (Ewen Bremner), whose relationships and meagre career prospects have long since ebbed away because of his nagging drug habit, has his own reasons to be nostalgic. But brilliantly, he’s the only one who can find a use for it: rather than just get high and dwell on the past, he uses it as creative material for a series of short stories, which he scrawls on pieces of notepaper and pins up around his desolate lodgings (an obvious yet pleasing bit of symmetry, given that Irvine Welsh bases so much of his novels on his own experiences).

Boyle captures all this in an immediate, down-and-dirty style which has as much in common with his horror hit 28 Days Later as the original Trainspotting. His handheld photography is full of grain and digital artifacts; frames are canted and sometimes awkward, but frequently beautiful in their simplicity. In Boyle’s weaker films – for this writer, the disappointing thriller Trance springs to mind – his use of color and editing can feel like window dressing. Here, as in Trainspotting, the grubby cinematography and saturated lighting are all part of the fabric. So too is the music, which reprises familiar tracks – like Underworld’s “Born Slippy” or Iggy Pop’s “Lust For Life” – in unexpected and creative ways.

T2 looks and feels like a film stolen on the hoof, as though it might have been shot on weekends when the budget allowed. In a handful of scenes, this is to its detriment – an otherwise moving reprisal of the “Choose Life” bit from 1996 is marred by some distractingly obvious ADR – but overall, Boyle wins more than he loses with his fast-and-dirty approach. This may be a sequel to a 20 year-old film, but it still feels vital.

Like Trainspotting, T2 is a black comedy in places; in others, it’s a thriller, with one late sequence even recalling an intense chase from Blade Runner, of all things. But above all, T2 is a desperately melancholy drama, adeptly summing up the pain and regret that comes with growing up, accepting the past and finally moving on.

T2: Trainspotting is out now.