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?