T2 Trainspotting (2017) – Movie Review
Directed by: Danny Boyle
Written by: John Hodge
Starring: Ewan McGregor, Ewan Bremner, Jonny Lee Miller, Robert Carlyle & Anjela Nedyalkova
Release Date: January 27th 2017
The original ‘Trainspotting‘ in 1996 left a large cultural impact on the film industry. While it was originally forbidden to compete for awards in the 1996 Cannes Film Festival, it wound up becoming an indie box-office hit and propelled the career of director Danny Boyle and its lead Ewan McGregor. The adapted screenplay (based on Irvine Welsh’s novel of the same name) was nominated for an Academy Award, its soundtracks were best-sellers and it was part of the indie-boom in the 1990s that saw hallmark directors like Quentin Tarantino, Kevin Smith and more rise to prominence. So how do you top that?
Well, time seems to be one factor. Coming just over 20 years after the original, ‘T2 Trainspotting‘ reunites the original cast and creative team and also partially adapts Irvine Welsh’s sequel book to “Trainspotting”; “Porno”. But Danny Boyle is an Oscar-nominated director known for doing more prestige films like ‘Steve Jobs‘, ‘127 Hours‘ and ‘Slumdog Millionaire‘, a far cry from the down-and-dirty filmmaker he started as. Can this film recapture the insane trip of the first and even if it can’t, could that be the entire point?
It’s been 20 years since Mark Renton (McGregor) turned his back on his drug-abusing friends and stole £16,000 from their last deal together. But after a heart attack and a divorce, Mark decides to return to Edinburgh and reunites with a still drug-using Spud (Bremner) and a untrustworthy Simon (Miller). However, when Begbie (Carlyle) escapes from prison and hears of Renton’s return, it’s a fight for survival as the trio try and get their lives back on track.
For those expecting a harsh, uncompromising return to drug-use and dozens of psychedelic set-pieces like the original film may wind up disappointed in ‘T2 Trainspotting‘. While there are a few “fantasy” sequences, they’re not brought on by hallucinogenic drugs but rather as a show-offey metaphor, style approach such as Spud falling off a building and having Mark catch him despite, in reality, Spud just suffocating himself in his flat. There’s no sequence on-par with the baby on the ceiling, or Mark climbing into Scotland’s worst toilet etc. That’s not a criticism of this sequel, but rather just explaining that the two films are very different in execution.
Basically, while ‘Trainspotting‘ is much more of a visceral experience (or a “trip”. GEDDIT!?), ‘T2 Trainspotting‘ has a lot more on its mind and confronts what happens when the high wears-off and what happens when someone finally “Chooses Life”, because life can sometimes be mundane. Life can disappoint and life doesn’t automatically negate everything that happened before you embraced it because Mark’s actions had lasting consequences for his old social circle and he has to face that. Honestly, the biggest thing approaching a plot-hole is just why Mark came back to Edinburgh in the first place. But, if he doesn’t then there’s no movie.
Because a lot has changed since the 1990s when the first ‘Trainspotting‘ was a radical shot in the arm for the U.K. independent film industry. Scotland wrestles with its own potential independence, a damaging Brexit looms on the horizon (Scotland unanimously voted to “Remain” in the EU but is being taken out of it anyway) and Scottish high-rise buildings and community venues are being torn down to be replaced with luxury apartments for off-shore investors. It’s the surface-level trappings that are taking down real aspects of character from these communities and the central cast are riding that wave of discontent, personified with a sequence where they prey upon an audience’s love of the past in order to rob them using modern technology (“There were no more Catholics left!”).
There’s a reason Mark’s new iteration of the “Choose Life” speech slams selfie-culture that abstains self-reflection because how can you reflect on an unrepresentative portrayal of yourself? How can you consider what’s wrong with your life when you’re on heroin and can’t fully see it? How can someone like Simon fully come to terms with the death of Dawn in the first movie when he never came to terms with his own parental responsibilities? While Mark is framed as the main character, it’s arguably Spud’s story about his continued rehabilitation which is helped by Simon’s current partner Veronika played by Bulgarian newcomer Anjela Nedyalkova, a representation of a vilified Migrant populace with their own values and sometimes they don’t have the luxury to “Choose Life”. Yet we also see Mark and Simon seemingly resent EU sovereignty but still rely on it and seek to exploit it by applying for an EU business grant so they can turn Simon’s family pub into a brothel.
All the while, we also follow Begbie who wants to try and get his teenage son into the family business of robbing houses but the boy just does not have the lack-of-a-heart for it as he wants to go to school and NOT become his father. Begbie’s refusal to let go of his own self-perceived masculinity and his inability to stray from his criminal path is one of the more compelling portrayals of toxic masculinity in recent years with Robert Carlyle being the standout performance of the movie. It’s because of his and Ewan McGregor’s comic timing that their initial reunion scene in a nightclub toilet is one of the funniest sequences you’ll see this year.
The cast are all terrific with all the key players from 20 years ago returning, even Kelly Macdonald as Diane, though she only has one, incredibly fleeting scene which is disappointing but thematically fitting. Having a double feature with the two “Trainspotting” films shows that while the cast may have aged, they’ve managed to slip back into these roles effortlessly. Their ticks, mannerisms and ways of speaking have remained consistent but they’re definitely more haggard after the two decades and the film doesn’t try to glamorise them or paint them as anything other than middle-aged men. The comparison is even more stark during one flashback sequence that’s actually a deleted scene from the first ‘Trainspotting‘ where the younger versions of the cast actually DO go trainspotting (yes, the titular activity of the first film wound up on the cutting room floor).
The film culminates in an intense finale where the group have to come face to face with the hardest part of life and that’s their own mortality. While Simon is oddly sidelined for the second half of the film, which becomes a bit of a narrative issue considering what happens with Veronika, Mark and Spud undergo a tangible growth that is bold, brave and does a lot to justify bringing back these characters after 20 years. It’s clear that Boyle and co. actually had a story they wanted to tell here. These people chose life, so having to actually face it is the best way to explore these characters. The film posits that one cannot move on with life until we’ve confronted the people we’ve hurt, not just for a personal form of closure but closure as a collective.
The original ‘Trainspotting‘ was an indie film made on a budget of £1.5M in 1996 but this 2017 sequel boasts a $18M budget, so while the gritty approach isn’t entirely genuine, Boyle and ‘Slumdog Millionaire‘, ‘Rush‘ and ‘Dredd‘ cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle (replacing original cinematographer Brian Tufano who retired in 2010) have managed to emulate the feel of the original. The same editing approach is taken, the same aesthetic is on display and while the subject matter means there’s not as much horrific imagery, but we still get an accurate representation of the underbelly of Scottish society.
Behind the camera, ‘T2 Trainspotting‘ does not feel like an obligatory cash-grab as Danny Boyle’s enthusiastic influence is apparent. This is a slickly produced film, but still sticking true to the identity of the first. Boyle has clearly grown as a filmmaker and he’s gotten more confident behind the camera so while the imagery might not be as striking as the first (the work of an audacious newcomer wanting to push the envelope), it still feels alive and vibrant along with a new “feel” due to being shot on digital. The return of licensed tracks such as “Lust for Life” and “Born Slippy” may register as a transcendent moment for people who consider the original film to be a seminal part of their lives. Special mention also needs to be given to the lighting team who do terrific work throughout, especially in the nightclub scenes.
I don’t think anyone was clamouring for a sequel to ‘Trainspotting‘ but what we got here is possibly the best sequel we could have asked for. It doesn’t have the same qualities as the first but that’s due to necessity and the fact that you can’t really recapture the lighting a second time 20 years later. The cast and crew have clearly matured and this sequel reflects that in a post-Brexit, post-independence referendum Scotland and the consequences that come from choosing life. A superb follow-up, though for very different reasons, ‘T2 Trainspotting‘ is a terrific coming of age drama that works as a resonant postscript to one of the best films of the 1990s.
I give ‘T2 Trainspotting‘ 4 and a half stars out of 5.
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Posted: 14th Oct 17