How do you follow a cult success that defined the zeitgeist for a generation of film lovers, music fans and (recreational) drug users?
Such is the legacy of Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting and such was the pressure of expectation that getting the “band” back together has taken 20 years. But at last it’s here and, as a nervous-looking Boyle himself admitted introducing the very first screening in London’s Leicester Square last night (thursday Jan 19), all the returning actors would look at him out of the corner of their eye while shooting it last summer as if to say: “This had better not be shite, Danny.”
So, to assuage the fears of many – Boyle included – it certainly isn’t shite. However, the original film’s bitterly ironic yet uplifting mantra Choose Life has now mutated into a rather less inspirational and brutally blunt: “Choose Disappointment”.
The lead character Mark Renton, played once again by a still-boyish-looking Ewan McGregor, utters these words during a litany of what he considers the modern world’s ills, many of which include social media (I’m afraid nothing dates a movie as awfully as words like “Snapchat” and “Twitter”) and you can’t help viscerally feeling the disappointment which is the dominant theme. Here are four characters who were losers when we left them in 1996 and who haven’t made any strides forward.
Middle-age stasis and fear of mortality creep all over this film, which is a bit odd considering everyone involved 20 years ago did rather well out of it and went on to have stellar careers – couldn’t they, then, have found maybe one character who isn’t a total failure? Trainspotting may have been bleak, but it had youthful energy and, crucially, some slivers of hope to act as a salve. Nothing seems to have gone right for any of the characters, while everything is rosy for the creative team behind them.
McGregor’s Renton is now falling off a treadmill in a gym in Amsterdam. Carlyle’s Begbie is in an Edinburgh prison, Jonny Lee Miller’s Simon “Sickboy” Williamson is blackmailing local dignitaries with the help of a pretty Bulgarian sex worker called Veronika (impressive newcomer Angela Nedyalkova) and Bremner’s “Spud” Murphy is still a junkie, his life ruined by not being able to cope with clocks going forward an hour in summertime: “How was I supposed to know it was summer? I was still wearing a jumper…”
Yes, this film, scripted again by John Hodge working vaguely from exec producer Irvine Welsh’s original novel and its 2002 follow-up Porno, has a bitter strain of often funny humour but channels it more into great gulps of regret as Renton returns to Edinburgh following a heart attack and decided to make good the ill he did at the end of the first movie, when he double-crossed his pals and made off with (nearly) all their money following a heroin deal.
“It’s not a mess,” says someone, “it’s just masculine,” and you can feel the drug-ruined testosterone pulsing through the characters: at one point the still-terrifying Begbie even necks a packet of Viagra in order to restore feeling to his long-dormant dick. The film’s female characters – even the main one, Veronika – are badly underserved.
Boyle’s film, meanwhile, is addicted to its own nostalgia, or as Sickboy calls it with a typical flourish, “being a tourist in your own youth.” For Renton, it’s about going home; for Begbie it’s about revenge; for Sickboy it’s about being stuck in your aunt’s old pub in a city hooked on 80s nostalgia nights while European subsidies are there for the scamming and waves of gentrification obliterate the past. Even the tourist board’s girl in a kilt at the airport handing out “Welcome to Edinburgh” leaflets is really from Slovenia.
There are, of course, some bravura Boyle moments, such as when Sickboy’s apartment turns into a football stadium, or Spud’s cold turkey finds Bremner (the best performer of the lot) silhouetted like Nosferatu on the peeling wall of his squalid council flat. Or when Renton finds himself re-enacting his iconic dash through the Edinburgh streets to end up on another car bonnet.
But there are so many shots and angles here. Boyle simply can’t resist forcing his now-regular cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle into every corner of the set, shooting high and low, distorting the lens, a Dutch tilt here, a Scottish wobble there.
It’s as if Boyle’s not got quite enough confidence in the script or the performers, his energy as a director sometimes hampering his vision as an artist. And while the first film somehow captured, defined and shaped the mid-90s zeitgeist of Brit-Pop and dance culture, of New Labour and a new wave of British cinema, you can’t help feel that T2 misses any such opportunity, particularly as it was shooting during the Brexit vote and now appears on the eve of Trump marching into the White House. Unless the zeitgeist is now all about disappointment, which, all things considered, it may well be.
Maybe these junkies are still too carried away with their own stories and addictions to care about the wider world, but while that attitude once made for a cockily self-assured youth rebellion movie, it feels self-obsessed and sad now. And, yes, watching middle-aged men snort coke in dirty toilets is as unattractive as it sounds.
T2 isn’t a bad film at all. In places, it’s terrific, but it too often drags in a pool of its own despond, a miserable and melancholy movie that almost looks a bit embarrassed to be so. If the new mood is more downbeat and contemplative, maybe the shooting style, so cool and hip 20 years ago, needed to be less hyper?
As for the soundtrack, which produced two must-have albums 20 years ago, well it can’t match its predecessors (‘How could it?” reasoned Boyle himself in his intro to the film) although there is clever mash-up work at play, with teasing refrains and chords of Lou Reed and Underworld floating throughout, alongside blasts of Blondie, remixes of Queen’s Radio Gaga and less iconic new stuff from indie bands such as Wolf Alice, which feel a bit 6 Music-y and not quite right for what these characters would be listeining to.
If the ultimate fate of Spud becomes the only hint at forward momentum in T2, it nevertheless feels trite to observe that T2 Trainspotting is a more mature film than its junior self. Of course it is: the problem is, it doesn’t feel wiser, just wearier. But maybe then again, don’t we all?