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t2-trainspotting-uk-poster

D: Danny Boyle / 117m

Cast: Ewen McGregor, Ewen Bremner, Robert Carlyle, Jonny Lee Miller, Anjela Nedyalkova, Kelly Macdonald, James Cosmo, Shirley Henderson, Pauline Turner, Scot Greenan, Kyle Fitzpatrick, Gordon Kennedy, Irvine Welsh

Choose life, choose four characters who have led miserable lives for the past twenty years and can’t overcome their failings. Choose redemption if only because it sounds good and it might make you feel better. Choose old friends, however much they might hate you, because making new ones is too difficult. Choose Scotland. Choose to make amends. Choose the past over the future because it’s safer. Choose remorse. Choose anger at seeing your dreams go unfulfilled, and try to make new dreams to stop yourself from feeling angry. Choose revenge if remorse won’t work. Choose life over a slow, drawn-out, painful trudge towards non-existence. Choose drugs to soothe or melt away the pain of choosing life. And choose the path of least resistence so that choices become easy. Choose football, music, sex, anything to make the emptiness inside you feel less overwhelming. But above all, choose life, and live it with everything you’ve got, even when you feel that you don’t have anything to offer, and if you did, that no one would want it.

Twenty-one years on from the events depicted in Trainspotting (1996), we finally have the sequel that’s been mooted for so long (Danny Boyle first voiced the idea back in January 2009). Back then, the original movie ended with Renton (McGregor) stealing the proceeds of a drug deal – £16,000 – from his friends, Simon aka Sick Boy (Miller), Spud (Bremner) and Begbie (Carlyle), and heading off to live a normal life. But that “normal” life, which included living in Amsterdam and being married, has fallen apart, and now Renton is back in Edinburgh. His mother has died, he’s staying with his dad (Cosmo), and looking to hook up with his old friends – if they’ll let him. He visits Spud first, only to find him trying to asphyxiate himself with a plastic bag. Saving an initially ungrateful Spud, Renton learns that Begbie is in jail serving a twenty-five year sentence, Simon is the landlord of a rundown pub that an aunt has left him, and Spud himself is a drug addict.

Renton reconnects with Simon, but Simon holds too much enmity towards his old friend because of the money from the drug deal. Along with his business partner, Veronika (Nedyalkova), Simon offers Renton the chance to become part of a scam to acquire European development funds that Simon can use to open a “leisure” club above the pub. Renton agrees, and ropes in Spud to help design the club and oversee its construction once the funds are awarded. Meanwhile, Begbie finds a way out of prison and back home to his wife, June (Turner), and teenage son, Frank Jr (Greenan). Begbie takes his son with him when he burgles properties, but is sidetracked from his endeavours when he learns from Simon that Renton is back in Edinburgh. Begbie’s thirst for revenge is exploited by Simon, and a chance encounter at a nightclub between the AWOL gaolbird and Renton leads to a showdown above the pub, and the chance to settle old scores the hard way.

If you enjoyed Trainspotting, then T2 Trainspotting is likely to make you feel all warm and fuzzy inside. Laced with affectionate nostalgia and perceptive notions of what it is to be middle-aged and treading water, this looked-for sequel isn’t as iconic as its predecessor – and to be fair, it was never likely to be – but it does have an erstwhile melancholy feel to it that accurately reflects the regrets of its four main characters. Like everyone else, Renton is the architect of his own downfall: drug-free but without any purpose in life, he’s come home because he’s not been able to make a go of it in Amsterdam; he’s adrift in his own life, and lacking ambition. Conversely, Simon has nothing but ambition, a drive to better himself financially, but he lacks foresight and cohesive thinking; his plans always backfire as a result. Spud is an addict who wants to swap his drug habit for something more meaningful, another addiction preferably, but one that has a positive effect on his life; writing down stories from twenty years ago helps him on this path. And Begbie – well, Begbie’s only regret is that he’s only just now got out of prison.

With the characters locked in place, John Hodge’s screenplay is free to explore themes of personal responsibility, misplaced nostalgia, revenge, deceit, and compromised friendships. It looks back further than Trainspotting itself, to when all four friends were much younger, pre-teens with the whole world ahead of them, and all the promise that entailed. It provides flashbacks to the first movie, and reintroduces other characters from twenty years before, such as Renton’s girlfriend, Diane (Macdonald), now a successful solicitor. And it shows how stagnant each of the main characters’ lives have become, how mired in mediocrity they are thanks to emotional malaise and impulsive behaviour. There’s little in the way of meaningful progress for any of them, just a desire to lead brighter, better lives that is slipping away from them with every passing year.

This gloomy, regret-laden approach could have made the movie too depressing or downbeat for audiences unfamiliar with the original (which was itself a frank, unapologetic examination of the joys and horrors inherent in taking drugs), but there’s too much mordaunt humour and scabrous comedy on display, and Hodge and returning director Danny Boyle have made a movie that connects on various, different levels, and which does so with Boyle’s trademark visual stylings. This is still a movie that fizzes with invention, from its seemingly scattershot, haphazard camera angles, complex yet rewarding editing rhythms, exceptionally well chosen soundtrack, and emphatic performances, and all the way down to the integration of “old’ footage with new, including a recreation of that classic moment from the original where Renton is almost knocked down by a car – and then stops to revel in the moment.

It’s a Danny Boyle movie through and through, with several moments where the semi-linear narrative seems unlikely to knit together into a satisfying whole, until by the end, everything has been explained and the various strands all neatly tied up. And there are fitting outcomes for all the characters, with all bar one back on the road to self-respect and potential absolution. In bringing back the original cast, and at a point where their own ages reflect the passing of time more effectively than if it had been achieved through make up, the movie offers a kind of shorthand for new viewers, introducing each character they play with an economy of purpose that’s admirable and effective. McGregor still retains some of that boyish charm that made the younger Renton so attractive to watch, while Miller takes glowering to new heights, his features displaying the frustration of Simon’s life with an icy conviction. Carlyle is still effortlessly frightening as Begbie, a man who may not be as comfortable in his own skin as we thought, but who can still inject menace and venom into the most unremarkable line of dialogue.

But if there’s one performance that stands out from the rest, and unexpectedly so, it’s that of Bremner as Spud. Spud is the eternal fuck-up, the addict with the unenviable ability to still feel deeply and profoundly despite the mental numbing he endures, and Bremner is simply superb in the role. Spud is the only character that the viewer can sympathise with, as his motives are selfless, and focused (as best he can) on providing for his partner, Gail (Henderson), and son, Fergus (Fitzpatrick). There’s an innate bravery about Spud that Bremner underplays with skill, making the moment where his writing skills are acknowledged by Veronika, a touching and heartfelt one. Through Veronika’s eyes we see Spud as more than just an addict, and unlike his friends, he can be cheered on with affectionate glee. But friendship is still the key ingredient in what makes these four people tick, even if they’re at odds with each other over past indiscretions. And some bonds, however stretched or damaged they may have become, will, as the movie tells us, withstand much more besides, and still prove beneficial to everyone concerned, no matter how much life has battered them.

Rating: 8/10 – an invigorating if pensive look at middle-aged bitterness wrapped up in a blanket of repentance, T2 Trainspotting doesn’t match the heights of its predecessor, but in fairness, it never actually tries; as much a product of its time as the first movie, there’s a heartache about this movie that is genuinely affecting, and which allows new viewers to see Renton et al as far more than cyphers in a movie about trying not to let the past inform and dictate the future.

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