T2: Trainspotting

trainspotting-2Alan Bissett reviews the Trainspotting sequel for Bella.

For the past few weeks I’ve been asking anyone I meet – friends, family, taxi drivers, barmen, hairdressers – if they’re excited about the sequel to Trainspotting. Every one of them has replied in the affirmative. We’re used to being artificially stimulted about big sequels, of course, such as the latest outgrowth from the Harry Potter franchise or the next installment of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But this is completely different. Trainspotting isn’t some focus-grouped fantasy beamed in from Hollywood, with a line of toys and Happy Meals attached. It’s about something far deeper, more local and tangible. The original novel, play and film seemed to grow out from the cracks in the paving-stones to bloom into a phenomenon that defined the Nineties, featuring characters, a soundtrack and scenes that are embedded in the psyche of a generation.

Of course everyone I asked was excited about it. But all of them added the same caveat: ‘I just hope it’s not shite.’

The sense of a genuine cultural moment – one to rival the seismic impact of the first film tweny years ago – is in the offing, but so too is the anxiety that director Danny Boyle and his team will tarnish the reputation of a cherished Scottish classic, by lazily tossing out Gregory’s 2 Girls or The Wicker Tree.

Let me assure you very quickly: T2 is the Trainspotting sequel we’ve been hoping for. It matches pound-for-pound the first film’s distinctive energy, visual flair, dramatic tension and social relevance. In a single leap it elevates itself into the hallowed realms of sequels such as The Empire Strikes Back, Before Sunset and The Color of Money which not only extend the narrative forwards but deepen our understanding of the original. In the manner of the first two Godfather films, it will gradually become difficult in the future to extricate Trainspotting and T2 from each other, so seamlessly does their DNA merge.

Loosely following Irvine Welsh’s 2002 novel Porno, T2 finds Mark Renton, played again by a career-best Ewan McGregor, back in Edinburgh to confront the dark consequences of his past. The lives of his former friends Spud, Begbie and Sick Boy have spiralled out of control, in their varying ways, as a direct result of Renton’s betrayal at the end of Trainspotting. Guilt, loss and ageing hang heavily over events like an opium cloud, giving the film a hallucinatory, psychotic feel. This is a story about middle-aged men under extreme pressure: impoverished, haunted by their own failure to become decent fathers, feeling a once-solid world turn into an unrecognisable one of Snapchat filters, omipresent CCTV, corporate gentrification and internet memes. There will be uncomfortable twinges for many who grew up with Trainspotting about what their own lives have amounted to. We are these characters – our youth faded, our plans come to naught – adrift on a sea of our own disappointments, yearning for that optimistic mid-Nineties moment when everything seemed possible.

“This is a story about middle-aged men under extreme pressure: impoverished, haunted by their own failure to become decent fathers, feeling a once-solid world turn into an unrecognisable one of Snapchat filters, omipresent CCTV, corporate gentrification and internet memes. There will be uncomfortable twinges for many who grew up with Trainspotting about what their own lives have amounted to. We are these characters – our youth faded, our plans come to naught – adrift on a sea of our own disappointments, yearning for that optimistic mid-Nineties moment when everything seemed possible…”

And T2 is aware of this. It deftly weaves itself back into the fabric of the first film using snatches of music, cameo apperarances and tricksy visual referencing. This is in some ways a remix of Trainspotting – in the same way that The Force Awakens harkens back to the comforting beats of Star Wars – but it never allows itself the easy route of nostalgia for the sake of it. There are bravura decisions, such as retrieving key scenes from the original novel which never made it into the first film, extending backwards into the protagonists’ childhoods, and even – in a breathtakingly meta-textual move – pulling back the curtain of the film to reveal one of the main characters as Trainspotting’s ‘writer’. The creative risk of this offsets the relentless magpie sampling.

While there are moments of sunburst joy as the gang gradually reunites, forming new schemes and scams, the cat-and-mouse games between Renton, Sick Boy and Begbie – each of them luring and using the others – gives the film a queasy tension, as violence, revenge and tragedy grow imminent. Along the way, these characters attain a depth and complexity that Trainspotting couldn’t quite sit still long enough to provide. While Begbie, for example, is an even scarier antagonist this time around, the one-note role of ‘cartoon psychopath’ is avoided by exposing a subconscious that writhes with sexual frustration, daddy issues, loneliness and the pain of betrayal. Robert Carlyle manages to wring from the twisted soul of Begbie at least two moments that would bring a tear to the eye of even, well, Begbie.

It’s not an entirely perfect film. The new female lead, Veronika – a Bulgarian sex-worker and foil for Sick Boy – is slightly underwritten. There’s the sudden appearance of a sauna-owning mobster that doesn’t quite pack the intended punch. And there are lines of dialogue, such as the update of the ‘Choose Life’ speech, which probably looked great in John Hodges’ screenplay but don’t sound remotely natural when spoken aloud. But these are minor faults in a script that manages the rare feat of feeling both epic and taut at the same time.

I had wondered to what extent T2 would address the huge ways in which Scotland has changed since 1996. Over the last twenty years we’ve had devolution, an independence referendum, austerity, the ‘Europeanisation’ of Edinburgh and now Brexit. Could T2 address these political issues while managing a propulsive, multiplex-ready narrative? Is there anything in T2 that will prove as iconic and perceptive as Renton’s famous ‘It’s shite being Scottish’ monologue?

The answer is: sort of. While the film doesn’t stare directly at any of these events – lest its eyes burn out from topicality – nonetheless EU flags, Union Jacks and Saltires haunt the scenery behind the characters. And T2’s standout comic episode, set in a bar peopled by a certain Glaswegian community, is going to drop jaws all over Scotland.. As it unfolds you’ll wonder, stomach clenching, if the film is actually going to ‘go there’.

Hang onto your Magic Hats, folks, because it does ‘go there’. It really, really goes there. Let’s just say that Old Firm discussion forums about this scene are going to make for a lively read.

T2 is an immensely confident and satisfying experience in its own right, but is also the best imaginable sequel to Trainspotting. In its emotional layering, narrative complexity and political maturity it’s perhaps even, against the odds, superior. This is a wise elder sibling to the street-punk original, and is in every sense the film we need right now.

Doesn’t that make you proud to be Scottish?

Comments (18)

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  1. June Stewart says:

    Looking forward to watching T2. Thank you for writing your review so positively as I will be curious to read the reviews of film critics and their take on such a epic Scottish sequel.

  2. Harry says:

    Delighted to hear you enjoyed T2, Its a film we have waited 21 years for and i cant wait to meet my old mates again,its been too long……..

    Roll on the 27th

  3. Kevin Williamson says:

    Great review Alan. Chimes perfectly with my own thoughts. I was worried it would have been just okay. Or great in bits. But no it was an unexpected masterpiece. Darker, more reflective, more nuanced (once you get over the slightly thuddish and predictable beginning where it brings the 4 main characters back up to date). And THAT SCENE! Haha. The movie will split audiences that’s for sure. Some will be expecting a rerun of the original but its not that. It’s as good though, without the bright and bubbly indestrucible glee of youth 🙂 Top soundtrack too.

    5/5 from me. Go see.

  4. Alf Baird says:

    Mair Scots langage picturs wad aye bi walcomed bi Scots fowk, its oor ain langage efter aw. Juist a peety naebody in Scotland is taucht tae e’en read an screed the Scots langage maist fowk aye uise ivery day.

    The use of even a wee bit authentic Scots language in films always makes them immensely popular in Scotland (despite/or in spite of major ‘Scottish’ films being so few and far between), and also makes them popular worldwide for that matter. This is because language IS our culture, and our culture is what people want and value most, people both here and throughout the world. Yet, if our language/culture remains this enduring despite almost zero opportunity to properly learn Scots language, think what we would be like if we did actually teach the Scots language tae aw oor bairns in schuil, and maybe even offer a Scots Language Degree at an ‘elite’ Scottish university? Jings, thon wid be Juist lyke haein equaliti wi English an e’en noo Gaelic langage anaw, an indigenous langages aw ower the warld tae, ye ken. Thon wid be braw.

  5. Jo says:

    “While Begbie, for example, is an even scarier antagonist this time around….”

    I’ll give it a miss then. Even when it’s available on DVD. I’m still emotionally scarred from seeing the first version of Begbie.

    Enjoyed reading your review Alan so no offence intended. I also realise that I’m possibly the only person I know who absolutely hated Trainspotting.

    1. John Page says:

      You re not alone. Many Scots (especially out of the Central Belt) hated Trainspotting and more so the narrow bullshit culture it instigated. Totally alien to most, but we’re told it is ‘Scottish Culture’?

      1. Reg says:

        Aye, agreed. Arrogant Central Belt cultural Imperialists like Alan Bissett who think they own Scotland.

        1. Sorry so ‘writing a film review’ now = ‘thinking they own Scotland’?

      2. Nothing ‘is Scottish culture’, but love it or hate it Trainspotting was an important cultural event in terms of huge book sales and then a global film phenomenon of a film written, produceed, shot and acted in Scotland, which, in itself is a very rare thing

    2. Reg says:

      Disturbing that any criticism of ‘hallowed’ Trainspotting is deleted from this crypto site.

      1. What’s been removed Reg? What’s a crypto site?

  6. Gaga Glasgow says:

    I wasn’t too interested in seeing it until I read this review.

  7. Colin Mackay says:

    Held off reading this till after the event of course. Funnily enough, the negative bits you stated are EXACTLY the ones that were in my own mind. Veronika was a pretty grey character and the cameo stood out like a sore thumb to me(no offence to himself as he is one of my fave writers). Overall a great, bold film that thankfully dared to be different to the first and a lot of the take on modern life again resonates with my own and I’m sure many other people. A certain scene had me crying with laughter and is an absolute masterpiece on a certain aspect of Scottish culture, I’m sure you’ll all realise which one!

  8. Frank says:

    I’m not convinced by the sincerity of the review. The author wants to be in ‘the in crowd’ if you know what I mean. Both Trainspotting and Irvine Welsh totally overrated in my opinion.

    1. john says:

      Totally agree , hate to see my country depicted in this way , we are so much more .

      1. Alf Baird says:

        These and other Scottish films often indicate what life is like for the impoverished, exploited masses and the lack of opportunity and bleak futures facing them. That is probably why such films are so few and far between. Scotland could indeed be “so much more” (it might even be a “country”) if it were not an oppressed colony managed by a unionist elite for their own advantage.

  9. Gaga Glasgow says:

    I read the review and have now watched the film.

    The film’s brilliant. A few awkward dark moments, like the original, but there’s a thousand sub-plots.

    Begbie was amazing.

    I’m not into pointing out flaws in something that on the whole was just excellent. If you haven’t seen it yet and you liked the original, treat yourself to a good night at the movies.

  10. Paddy Hughes says:

    Great film – was worried that the constant flashbacks to the original and updated versions of various scenes meant it was gonna be a mere tribute to the first, but the fact that the film explicitly addresses the theme of nostalgia means the it ‘gets away with it’ and works out well.Have to agree that scene in the bar was excellent, but for me the tension and reactions when Renton and Begbie realise they’ve come face-to-face again after recognising each other’s voices was the pinnacle.Good review by the way and great magazine – keep up the good work.

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