T2 Trainspotting: back to what future?

The problems with sequels are well trodden; and for a sequel to a film like Trainspotting, they are magnified tenfold.

Trainspotting defined an era. A fin de siècle of those that could be summarised down to a 12-song playlist, with some level of accuracy. Of a century at large that was marked with identifiable trends and movements split into convenient, decade-long chunks. It was not necessarily a simpler time—just one more digestible.

Despite being set twenty years later, it is this time Danny Boyle wishes us to revisit in T2 Trainspotting, with a healthy degree of success. However, it remains a curious thought that, were its forebear not so embroiled with the Zeitgeist, T2 may have been a radically different kind of sequel.

Gone are the days of drug abuse and the AIDS scare. The world our disparate group of friends—Mark, Spud, Sick Boy and Begbie—now inhabit is a very different one, with the generalities of squalor exchanged for the particulars of Edinburgh itself. The cinematography makes good use of its setting; the world feels larger now, less penned in by the four walls of Mother Superior’s skag den: we see Sick Boy shout at his sex-worker girlfriend Veronika from outside a tenement window looking in; we watch Mark sweep down the Royal Mile, alone in the dead of night. A degree of distance from their surroundings adds to the character’s sense of being, each in their own way, lost at sea.

But what the film makes up for in place it disappoints in its feeling for the times, the feeling that carried the first to epochal heights. Mark’s (slightly clumsy) rehash of his original ‘choose life’ monologue is too self-referential to have the same impact or to provide a new mantra for a newly disillusioned youth. Despite a great soundtrack with contributions from the likes of Edinburgh trio Young Fathers, classics from the first (like Lust for Life) still dominate; a club scene opts for Queen’s Radio GaGa than dare go for anything modern. One scene involving Mark and Simon going to a Protestant loyalist pub is executed with delightful relish, but otherwise the film is politically anodyne. Except for a brief cameo of the Parliament building, you would be forgiven for not realising how much political upheaval there has been in Scotland alone since the first film was released—in 1996, before devolution—for there is a feeling of stasis throughout.

As before, despair for the future possesses everyone, who are struggling with their own individual fates: Mark returns to Edinburgh after twenty humdrum years in Amsterdam, going through divorce and disillusioned with clean life; Sick Boy, still reeling from Mark’s betrayal, is managing the disreputable family pub but holds ambitions to open a brothel in Leith; Spud, despite given a morsel of hope from the money left to him, has continued his life as a smackhead right up to the brink; Begbie, estranged by a stint behind bars, makes his escape to find a wife and child reluctant to accept him. And all this is layered with a burdensome awareness of the past, brought to focus through endless soft-lit montage footage of youth and childhood as the characters revisit old steps, talk of debts due, places been, people lost along the way. Nostalgia is not simply unavoidable, but woven into the script.

Mark is perhaps fleshier in skin than he is in personality this time round, but overall it is a genuine pleasure to experience these characters and their complex relationships all over again. Particular credit must go to Robert Carlyle’s reprisal of Begbie, who has naturally transmogrified from the comically violent to nihilistically evil. There is genuine tension whenever he appears on screen.

This, however, is not a film indicative of midlife crisis and emasculation as it means in the current era of austerity, Brexit and rising mental illness. All bar a handful of namechecks of social media platforms, the film’s core message is general enough to work for any decade of the past fifty years. But perhaps in this generality comes the defining aspect of modern life: a culture less cohesive, and with no Zeitgeist to be defined in the first place.

T2 is not nostalgic simply because we are nostalgic for Trainspotting—but the nostalgia the characters feel is made stronger by the fact it is shared with the audience. They have experienced these characters before; there is a similar frame of reference. And if nothing else, this nostalgia is essential to telling the story of people who feel like all they have left of their lives is the past, as the future fails time and time again to hold the promise of something better.

Despite its faults, T2 Trainspotting remains a good sequel and a strong film in its own right, and avoids committing the mortal sin of outright betraying its sire. And if it leaves you wanting to watch the first all over again, that’s not necessarily symptomatic of inferiority; only that the good times are seldom valued the first time they crop up.

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