T2 Trainspotting is the sequel dance fans deserve

This week Danny Boyle’s long awaited follow-up to the club classic Trainspotting hits Australian cinemas. JIM POE is happy to report that it’s a sequel you’ll want to see. 

“First there was an opportunity, then there was a betrayal.” It’s both the tagline for T2 Trainspotting, maybe the most anticipated sequel of the year, and a repeated refrain of dialogue that sums up the film’s themes of friendship struggling amidst broken trust and shattered hopes.

Sure enough T2 is filled with petty crime, double crosses and the despair of people whose lives never had much promise – true to form for Irvine Welsh’s take on the mean streets of Edinburgh that became iconic with his 1993 novel and Danny Boyle’s 1996 film adaptation.

“Fear not: T2 is genuinely great”

But in case fans of the original are worried that the real “betrayal” will be a poor effort or a mere cash-in from Boyle, fear not. T2 is genuinely great: both a hugely entertaining thrill ride and a wrenchingly emotional plunge back into the lives of characters that seem eerily like old friends. It’s not without problems and not as good as the original – no sequel could hope to top a film that transcendent and definitive – but it’s more than worthy as a follow-up.

It very effectively and creatively expands on the themes of Trainspotting, constantly teasing our memories and expectations. And it hits us with the same dizzying slingshot combo of nihilism and euphoria, this time mixed with lots of action and a massive dose of nostalgia.

T2 is adapted from Welsh’s 2002 novel Porno. I haven’t read it, but Welsh’s gonzo style and black humour are all over this film. It’s a very familiar narrative world, and director Boyle and screenwriter John Hodge, who also adapted the original, make you feel right at home in it all over again.

“It’s not as good as the original – no sequel could hope to top a film that transcendent and definitive – but it’s more than worthy as a follow-up”

The plot brings together the four main characters from the original for the first time in 20 years. You’ll recall their circle of boyhood friends was shattered when Mark Renton stole thousands of pounds of drug money from his mates Simon “Sickboy” Williamson, Daniel “Spud” Murphy and Francis Begbie; and then fled the country to “choose life.” As T2 opens, Renton returns to Edinburgh from his exile in Amsterdam, having been diagnosed with heart disease and with his life in upheaval.

He looks up Simon, now a pimp with a massive coke habit; and Spud, whose ongoing struggles with heroin addiction have pushed him to the brink of suicide. They aren’t too happy to see him. Meanwhile Begbie, as unstable and violent as ever, escapes from prison, intent on getting revenge on Renton.

A crisscrossing series of capers ensues, with Begbie stalking the other three as they scheme to open a brothel in a rundown waterfront pub for quick cash. New to the scene, and central to the story, is Simon’s girlfriend Veronika (played by Anjela Nedyalkova), a cynical but kindhearted Bulgarian sex worker who flirts with Renton, serves as a muse for Spud, and masterminds the brothel’s funding and construction. She plans to be the madam.

The way T2 plays with the original story and characters is wild. If you’re expecting the references to be mature and subtle, think again; T2 dives into the viewer’s memories of the original with all the crazed determination of Renton diving into the worst toilet in Scotland.

The characters spend entire scenes reliving and rehashing their youthful escapades and tragedies, with a slew of visual cues to remind us. There are many clips from the original film; other iconic shots – such as Renton nearly hit by a car while running from the cops – are reworked. Familiar settings and objects, like Renton’s bedroom with its train-motif wallpaper, reappear and take on new significance. Renton’s old underaged girlfriend Diane (Kelly Macdonald), now a lawyer, makes a cameo appearance that’s both funny and jarringly melancholy.

The original’s famous use of Underworld’s Born Slippy is referenced throughout the film with a sombre, atmospheric version of its melody drifting through several scenes (produced, as it happens, by Underworld’s alter ego Lemon Interrupt). Thanks to some very clever digital effects, the streets of Edinburgh are literally haunted with the ghosts of the past.

So T2 traffics in nostalgia for the original, and for that era of music and fashion and culture in general, but it also ruthlessly satirises it.

“It seems to be saying that nostalgia is a drug as seductive and destructive as heroin, all the while taunting us with it”

It pulls the audience in with helplessly enjoyable riffs on the past, but it wouldn’t be an Irvine Welsh story if it wasn’t confronting and cruel too. That complexity gives T2 its edge. It seems to be saying that nostalgia is a drug as seductive and destructive as heroin, all the while taunting us with it.

“You live in the past,” Veronika says in disgust to Simon and Renton – but she says it in Bulgarian and they’re too coked up and lost in memories of their boyhood football heroes (illustrated with dazzlingly surreal effects) to notice.

I happen to be the same age as both Renton and Ewan McGregor, and it made the film very hard to watch at times. It made me feel old. I don’t think I’m being self-indulgent when I say this: ageing, compromised hopes, dying illusions, the weight of time – these are what the film is explicitly all about. It aggressively confronts the fears of the greying Gen-X audience that made it a hit 21 years ago.

The centrepiece of T2 is Renton’s updated version of his famous “Choose Life” monologue/rant. It begins as a sarcastic in-joke, another cheeky reference to the original, and over a few minutes turns into a heartbreakingly bitter take on middle age and the dystopian future we find ourselves in.

“Ageing, compromised hopes, dying illusions, the weight of time – these are what the film is explicitly all about”

But you don’t have to be forty-something to appreciate T2, any more than you have to be Scottish or a recovering junkie. It’s a powerhouse film that will appeal to many audiences, big and brash, with a very sleek, contemporary style. Compared to the indie feel of the original, it’s much more like an action thriller, with fistfights and car chases and gunplay.

Director Boyle is known for lavish, strikingly visual films like Slumdog Millionaire, but this one ups the ante with its dream sequences, visual puns, mixed media, digital effects, quick cuts and pounding soundtrack. (The Prodigy’s remix of Iggy Pop’s Lust for Life defines the aesthetic of the soundtrack: punk + electronic + reference to the original.)

Visually T2 is less like the original and almost more in the OTT style of an Oliver Stone film like Natural Born Killers.  It’s great how it retains the ability to shock with the violence and depravity of this world. If you recall how you cringed when you first saw Renton stick his head into that toilet, rest assured there are plenty of similarly nasty and unpleasant moments here.

Boyle’s energetic style is at its best when framing Edinburgh and the surrounding area. The scenes set in the council estates of Leith seem darkly futuristic in a Children of Men sort of way – part of how the film picks up and expands on the original’s commentary on the social decay of contemporary Europe.

On the other hand Renton and Spud’s ascent up the landmark Arthur’s Seat in the green rolling hills above the town is breathtakingly beautiful and uplifting. The tension between those two modes is effective – but it’s also often tiring the way the film changes its tone, from comedy to horror to satire, in nearly every scene.

“The best thing about T2, is, of course, the characters”

The best thing about T2, is, of course, the characters. It’s worth seeing just to spend two more hours with these four. It’s such a pleasure to see McGregor, Jonny Lee Miller, Ewan Bremner and Robert Carlyle rediscovering and re-energising the unforgettable roles that defined their careers. They do it so naturally it’s easy to lapse into thinking they’re real people.

The gravity of these characters, and the emotion they inspire in the viewer with 20 years visibly burdening them, anchors the loopier elements of the story and the visual style. Despite the grinding angst they confront, each of them does indeed choose life in his own way. The angst keeps you glued to the screen; but it’s that spark of life that will make you think of the film days later.

T2: Trainspotting is in Australian cinemas from February 23. 

Jim Poe is a writer, DJ, and editor based in Sydney. He tweets from @fivegrand1.