6.5 out of 10
Ewan McGregor as Renton
Directed by Danny Boyle
T2 Trainspotting Review:
T2 Trainspotting is a film which, much like it’s main characters, doesn’t know why it exists only that it does and spends its time either ruminating on the existential dread of that fact or trying to ignore it. Twenty years on from the first Trainspotting, things haven’t gotten noticeably better for lower class sections of Edingburgh, but while the light shined on urban decay the first time around felt bold and refreshing, the return doesn’t seem to know what else to do. Like many sequels, it is obsessed with its past as evidenced by the sheer number of actors playing younger versions of the main characters. Boyle and screenwriter John Hodge (nominated for an Oscar for the first film’s screenplay) take this to a metatextual extreme, as the characters spend much of their time moping about how simultaneously wonderful and horrible the old days were, primarily because they eventually discovered they were born poor in Scotland and their youthful promise had nowhere to go.
Except for Mark Renton (McGregor), who went to Amsterdam with £16,000 of stolen drug money. After two decades abroad, however, he has little to show for his attempt at middle class normalcy except a failed marriage and a heart stint. Returning to Edinburgh to make sense of how his life passed so quickly and with so little to show for it, he soon finds himself returning to old haunts and old friends. A few kicks to the heads and punches to the kidneys later and Renton and his old mates Simon (Miller) and Spud (Bremmer) soon return to their old ways, attempting to scam the Edinburgh development council into giving them seed money to start their own brothel. It’s all almost guaranteed to go wrong, but it beats sitting around all day watching music videos and talking about the old days (which they keep doing anyway), but little do they realize how little time they have. Their old psychopath friend Begbie (Carlyle) has broken out of Edinburgh prison and unlike Simon and Spud, he has not forgotten how badly his feelings were hurt when Renton ran off with their money.
There are almost a million different ways a Trainspotting sequel could have gone, even with this setup, without repeating the old film too much; grand frustration of T2 number 1 is that Boyle quite clearly knows this. Grand frustration number 2 is that no one involved can seem to decide which of those directions is the best one, so they try all of them, simultaneously. T2 is constantly going in a thousand directions at once and mostly getting nowhere. Having reached middle age and found themselves somehow down and out in Scotland, the characters are obsessed with how they got there and slightly less fussed about what to do about it. They talk about their childhood when they were all friends, they go back over the moments of the first film constantly and in great detail, they pour out bitterness about their inability to break out of the viscous circle they’re caught in. They talk about their children and their combination of relief and disappointment that the next generation doesn’t understand what their lives have been like. They have the destitution of the truly poor and the self-absorption of the middle class and general belief that this is enough to hang a sequel on. It’s so constant that Simon’s Bulgarian girlfriend/business partner actually comments on it several times in a manner which is supposed to be insightful but only really manages to pick out the film’s flaws.
The rare cases when they stop doing this and start trying to actually change their circumstances, misguided as those attempts might be, are the only times T2 crystallizes into a film of its own. The highlight is a trip by Renton and Simon to a dance hall to rip off old men who are stuck relitigating the Battle of the Boyne and who, in Renton’s words, ‘are the same as us except the lack of identity.’ It’s pointed, it’s funny – Renton and Simon, still strained friends, must create and perform an anti-Catholic song on the spot or be beaten to a pulp – it’s twisted and very wrong. It is Trainspotting. And it’s over in about 10 minutes, never to return. Simon and Renton’s plots are less interesting to the filmmakers than their conversations on a couch or Begbie’s inability to connect with his college-going son or Spud’s discovery of his talent as a street poet and writer or a zillion other after-school special type subplots the characters of Trainspotting would vomit at if they realized they were part of.
Like an old man realizing his age, T2 keeps trying to grab for that old Trainspotting feel only to discover that it is just too old to do so. It’s even possible Boyle knows this and is doing it on purpose – it would certainly fit with his take on the material – but for the inaneness of its conclusions. Who we are in our twenties is who we are destined to be for the rest of our lives, T2 argues, complaining simultaneously about the lack of accomplished change and how useless the quest for change is. In attempting to relate this malaise to the audience, the filmmakers unfortunately make us feel it all too keenly. When Renton finally resorts to dancing in his bedroom to old records again, it is no longer the frenetic escape from a life of pain. It is the desperate attempt to relive that moment when what he was doing and feeling meant something. As T2 keeps reminding us, intentionally and unintentionally, that quest is futile.