I’d certainly be within my rights to get long winded about the way director Danny Boyle uses clips from the original, 20-year-old Trainspotting to provide contrast between the drugged-out characters he introduced us to (in his adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s novel, via a John Hodge adaptation) and the more modern versions of them in their 40s. Not all of them are on drugs still, but they all manage to appear just as elegantly wasted. Less frenetic but just as much of a hardcore, gut-wrenching, gloomy portrait of lives adrift, T2 Trainspotting is not meant to be a return to form. Instead Boyle and his returning actors present us with characters who likely never thought they’d live to see 40…or 30, for that matter, and are now lost in a world of choices, responsibility, and the agonizing prospect of living a full life.
Two decades after he betrayed his friends and took a great deal of cash that was meant to be split four ways, Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor) returns to his native Edinburgh after dodging a bullet from a health scare. On the surface, Mark has returned to make amends, with his surviving father and his old mates, including Spud (Ewen Bremner), who is the only one still hooked on heroin; and Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller), who owns the family bar, snorts a lot of cocaine, and has a chip on his shoulder about the same size as Renton; he also lives with a woman named Veronika (Bulgarian actress Anjela Nedyalkova), who is infinitely smarter than he is. The other member of the group, Begbie (Robert Carlyle) is tucked away for a long stretch in prison, which he breaks out of at the top of the film. When he finds out Mark has returned, he sees red and wants revenge.
In so many ways, Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire, 28 Days Later, 127 Hours, Steve Jobs) has changed as a visual stylist and has become a lot more controlled and refined as a filmmaker, so returning to the world of Trainspotting gives him the chance to let the camera go and float through a scene with a youthful vigor, while still acknowledging that these characters are mostly miserable all the time. After engaging in a knockdown, drag-out fight with Renton, Sick Boy proposes a business venture that Mark seem eager to help with. Meanwhile, Begbie hasn’t changed a bit. He makes it over after breaking out of jail, attempts to enlist his now-grown son on some of his criminal activities, and is legitimately angered and hurt when his boy wants nothing to do with it.
We get brief glimpses of other Trainspotting characters, such as those played by Shirley Henderson and Kelly Macdonald, but the movie’s most genuine and moving surprise is that Spud has taken up writing. Specifically, he’s been writing about his early years with his friends and the stories are sounding a lot like adventures from the first film—or perhaps more to the point, like Welsh’s first book. The implication that Spud is a version of the author is tremendous and personalizes these stories so much more than placing a title card on the film that declares it “based on a true story.” By the end of the film, characters are reading these stories to each other, and it was the type of deviant poetry that made me forget my hesitations about Boyle using clips of the original film. He doesn’t edit these bits in to capture a feeling that his new film can’t; he’s not interesting in that at all. Instead, he uses them to recall a time when these young men and women reckless, careless and pathetic, even if they were smiling. Placing these images next to the current versions of the characters is a melancholy affair.
I suspect there will be some who will crucify T2 Trainspotting for leaning too heavily on nostalgia, and they wouldn’t be wrong. But Boyle is too smart a filmmaker to try to capture lightning in a bottle twice. Instead, he is interested in using our memories against us, in a sense, and allowing them to fuel our emotions concerning a group of middle-aged men who are stuck in the last chapter of their lives and are desperate to figure out what’s next. This may be a more difficult step than kicking drugs, and it’s a curious and desperate journey. I was left with a similar feeling I get when watching Michael Apted’s Up films (Seven Up, 14 Up, etc.) in that I’m quite eager to get updates on these characters, but I also dread it just a little because the odds are good that some of the subjects will have taken bad terms in the interim. The Trainspotting films are certainly a bit of fun and games, but it exacts a cost, even today.
To read my exclusive interview with T2 Trainspotting director Danny Boyle, go to Ain’t It Cool News.