The worst toilet in Scotland. The baby on the ceiling. The grin after being hit by a car. Those are the moments that made Trainspotting an instantly iconic and generation-defining film. T2 Trainspotting is about looking back on those moments, and moving forward. You can visit the past, but you can never stay. Youth is fleeting, and so is legacy. When you don’t have a future, you hold on to the past. Sometimes too tight. And when memory isn’t enough to escape, there’s always heroin. Cocaine. Snapchat. Choose your addiction. T2 Trainspotting is about the past and the future. It’s about letting go. About choosing life. And sometimes about choosing relapse.
T2 Trainspotting is the sequel to the 1996 film Trainspotting, directed by Danny Boyle. He returns along with the original cast: Ewan McGregor as Mark, Ewen Bremner as Spud, Jonny Lee Miller as Simon, and Robert Carlyle as Begbie. It’s twenty years later and Mark has come back to Scotland for the first time since ripping the others off at the end of the first film. Since he’s been gone, Spud’s addiction has ruined his life, Simon has become a blackmailer, and Begbie’s been in prison. They’re addicts, losers, and criminals still trying to get their lives together. Sometimes they come close. When Begbie escapes from prison, they’re forced to confront the past to move forward. That’s difficult, because none of them really knows what moving forward looks like. It’s hard to look past the next hit when that’s all you have.
“Is he doing cocaine in there?”
While T2 Trainspotting will always live in the shadow of the original, it functions quite well there. This is a film about nostalgia and stagnation, and knows exactly what it’s supposed to be. It’s not trying to upstage or out-do Trainspotting, just to continue it. The characters are older, and lack the background hum of hope that drowned out reality in their youth. Now they do everything they can to reclaim it. This means that while the music is still good, there’s not as much of it. While the drugs are just as potent, they’re far less frequent. The characters are still trying, but they’re starting to realize that time is no longer on their side. T2 isn’t about reclaiming youth, but about the futility of even trying. Youth, drugs, and hope. Two are fleeting, but one is always for sale.
Ewen Bremner and Robert Carlyle are the standouts of the main cast. While McGregor and Miller are both wonderful, Bremner’s manic weirdness and Carlyle’s unhinged aggressiveness steal the show in each scene. They’re both forces of nature balanced by McGregor and Miller’s relative normalcy, and without either of them the movie simply wouldn’t work. This time around, Bremner is given a larger role, and much of the narrative is focused on him. His character could have easily tipped the balance of quality in the film, but Bremner found the humanity in each ridiculous facial expression or manic affectation Spud had. Carlyle, playing the character most trapped in the past, goes from hilarious to terrifying and back with each violent rant.
“I’m forty-six and I’m fucked!”
This movie is also a fascinating meta-examination of Ewan McGregor’s relative stardom. Of the four main characters and actors, he’s undoubtedly done the best over the past twenty years. Boyle makes a smart move to highlight this early on, framing McGregor’s Mark as healthy and thriving, in contrast to the jagged edges of the other three. T2 Trainspotting is constantly commenting on the original, taking iconic moments and re-wrapping them for new context. Some things change, some things stay the same. At its best, T2 uses these opportunities to comment on the original. No, perhaps that wasn’t as serious in hindsight. Yes, perhaps that was more important, looking back. Boyle first uses hindsight as a tool, then later turns the lens on hindsight itself.
The narrative drags a bit at the start, and mirrors the energy of the first film. While the original began with rock & roll swagger and eventually sobered up in the later half, T2 starts sober and dramatic before slowly giving way to the punk rock fun of the first film. In this way, the movie itself is echoing the relapse of the main characters. Same journey, different directions. It’s not rock & roll throughout, but when the movie has fun, it seriously works. Miller and McGregor are a joy to watch as they drink, party, and rip off unsuspecting people. When they’re having fun, you do too. When the movie has fun, it’s hard not enjoy it. Part of this is the incredible music throughout.
“I’m an addict.” “So be addicted.”
The soundtrack to T2 Trainspotting continues to be as rollicking and impressive as the original. In fact, it might even surpass it. Whenever the music gets going, the movie becomes electric. But the focus on drama and nostalgia in T2 often means that there’s no music playing at all. Several scenes pass without any soundtrack whatsoever, and ultimately feel lifeless and dull. Part of this was probably intentional, as music is another way these characters escape. But in the end it just makes the movie drag when it should soar. The narrative also could have been tighter, as T2 jumps from scene to scene with little explanation of time or motivation. This again was intentional, but didn’t always work.
T2 Trainspotting features breathtaking camerawork and cinematography by Anthony Dod Mantle. While the sequel is more subdued than the original, it’s no less stunning to behold. The rich surrealist hallucinogenic quality of the first film is maintained fully here, with the heroin highs and withdrawal lows hauntingly portrayed in light and shadow. The camera pans and sweeps and zooms from the edges of microphones and the inside of bathroom stalls, and no opportunity for a good shot is wasted. Dutch angles are a little overused at first, but are never distracting, and never get in the way of the narrative. Astonishingly, even things like silly Snapchat filters and embarrassing selfies are compelling under Mantle and Boyle’s touch.
“Finish your story.”
T2 Trainspotting might run on nostalgia, but it never wallows in it. It’s a comment on nostalgia, aging, the past, and the future. Some characters change, some characters stay the same. When one character accuses the other of being a tourist in his own youth, he’s saying all that needs to be said. You can visit the past, but you can never stay. T2 visits the same grounds as Trainspotting, but never overstays its welcome. It has its own story to tell, its own reason for being. And it’s a welcome and compelling film from Danny Boyle all on its own. You don’t need to see the original to understand this one, but it definitely helps. See it in theatres, before you regret it.
My Rating: 7.5/10