Dir: Danny Boyle. 2017.
“You’re an addict! So be addicted! Just be addicted to something else.” Renton
Trainspotting is a film that never needed a sequel. A wonderfully charged hit of pulsating style and vigor, it captured but never glamourized the lives of four addicts in Edinburgh. A landmark of early 90’s British cinema, Trainspotting is at once thrilling and sickening, exciting and bleak; exposing the characters’ cycle of addiction, violence and petty thievery. It does end on something of a triumph, though. After ripping off his best friends, Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor) strides purposefully towards the camera, big smile on his face, Underworld’s Born Slippy blasting out of the speakers, and you think that at least one of these characters will have some sort of happy ending.
Life rarely works like that however, and this expectation of where we find these characters may make or break the sequel for a lot of the audience. They are almost exactly where you would expect them to be twenty years later; emotionally ‘on pause’ almost. Renton is living in Amsterdam; Begbie (Robert Carlyle) is in Prison; Simon (Jonny Lee Miller) managing a relations pub and running a low rent blackmail scam with his girlfriend Veronica (Anjela Nedyalkova). Only Spud (Ewen Bremner) has come to terms with being a junkie, but sees that it has ruined his life. After a ‘cardiac event’, Renton comes home to look up his old friends.
Renton returns home because that promised happy ending hasn’t quite worked out as he hoped, and because he needs to. The first image we see of him is on a treadmill, listening to High Contrasts’ Shotgun Mouthwash; the first line of which is “you might as well set fire to your friends.” He’s running away from his conscience and by taking up running he is trying to literally outrun his addiction. That he is on a treadmill is no coincidence, running fast but getting nowhere. It’s only when he returns home do we see him running outside. The symbolism is clear; he needs to return home to move forward.
The characters might have aged twenty years, but so too have the creative team, and this makes T2 a much more thoughtful and empathetic movie than its predecessor. Boyle still has the same bracing effervescent style of old, but finds far more interesting thematic ground to work with, partly thanks to the natural ageing of both actors and location. This is Britain’s premier film-maker revisiting his most famous work with a more lived in, thoughtful approach, finding fresh shades of original in the margins. This is a film about middle age as much as the passage of time. Certain sequences are clearly borne out of life experience, and Renton’s frustration at still being alive: “I could’ve handled another two or three years, but thirty? They didn’t say what I’m supposed to do with another thirty, did they?” is far more affecting when you realize returning screenwriter john Hodge had a similar reaction to his own ‘cardiac event.’
Boyle and Hodges get a lot of mileage out of revisiting the glory of their youth and invite the characters to do the same. Spud remembering him and Renton running from security guards is portrayed in a few snatched images and evocative bars of Born Slippy. This speaks both to where the character is and, fantastically, where we the audience are. Boyle uses our own nostalgic connection to the original movie as shorthand for his character’s emotional state. Renton’s famous Choose Life speech gets repurposed from the youthful anti-establishment call to arms of the original, to a soberer lament of frustration: –
“Choose unfulfilled promises and wishing you’d done it all differently. Choose never learning from your own mistakes. Choose watching history repeat itself. Choose the slow reconciliation towards what you can get, rather than what you’ve always hoped for. Settle for less and keep a brave face on it. Choose disappointment and choose losing the ones you love, then as they fall from view, a piece of you dies with them until you can see that one day in the future, piece by piece, they will all be gone and there will be nothing left of you to call alive or dead. Choose your future, Veronica. Choose life.”
If Trainspotting was the addict in full flow, seeking hit after hit, T2 is the addict in recovery; taking stock of your life and seeing whether you can move forward. Spud gradually becomes the hero of the movie, as he replaces heroin with writing stories of the gang’s early days, which in a lovely touch, are pulled almost verbatim from the original novel. This suggest not only a life outside the narrative for these characters, but hints at the life changing power of turning experience into art.
T2’s thesis is that we must confront the things we’ve done and the people we’ve hurt, or risk never moving past them at all. Boyle visualizes this by using brief, instinctive freeze frames when a character indulges in behavior they are in a set cycle of, such as Begbie lashing out at his lawyer or Spud taking a hit. As the narrative progresses down its path of recovery, these freeze frame morph into something of a motif; occurring during scenes of friendship and genuine emotion, suggesting the lasting benefits of reconnection.
Do did we really need a sequel to a twenty-year-old movie about junkies in Edinburgh? Absolutely. T2 is a vibrant and mature examination of ageing; of finding a place in the world, and more importantly, a place in your own life. It’s about nostalgia and our relationship with our own youth. It’s about the creative process and how art imitates life and life inspires art. It’s about growing up and finding what you got from your life isn’t what you wanted. It’s about the nature of friendship and how only those you grew up with can really know you. It’s about embracing change, but accepting that parts of you stay the same. It’s about not being afraid to return home, how its ok to take a step back before moving forward.
At the end of the movie, Renton goes to his childhood bedroom, shuts the door, and puts on a remix of Lust for Life. As he dances in the same manner as the opening of the first film, we know he’ll be ok and we will too. Things change, and the things that you thought wouldn’t change always do, and that’s ok. You’re still here, we’re still here. We’re just dancing a different beat to the same song. Looking backwards can provide new opportunities and help us process all manner of life experience. There is joy to be found in old friendships and familiar places. If a former addict can find happiness in being alive, maybe we can too.
T2: Trainspotting is out now on DVD and Bluray.
I’ve always been passionate about books and movies and I want to share what I love with you! I founded Minds Eye Reviews to explore media from a psychological perspective, so as to better understand the human condition.