*Spoilers ahead for a two year old film and a 20 year old film*
Last night, I finally got around to watching the sequel to Trainspotting, T2 (a name that I love by the way). Why did it take me two years to get round to it?
Well the first reason is the classic “I didn’t have anyone to go to the cinema with” excuse. You’ll notice my viewing coincides with it coming onto UK Netflix and being readily available. My girlfriend is into films but hadn’t seen Trainspotting and I thought loading one in and rushing her out to see the next wouldn’t give her the optimal experience for appreciation of Trainspotting, where you need it to wash over yourself for years.
However, as a Trainspotting fan, that excuse is a bit lame – I could have gone by myself. The second reason is that honestly, I was a bit weary of revisiting these characters that I love. Both in the sense of the traditional fear you have when going to see a sequel – that it will diminish the characters and your enjoyment of the first. But also I feared for them, as people. The first Trainspotting is a tremendous film, but harrowing, and I had to be in the right mood to revisit that world and see the damage the characters are doing to themselves now.
On my first fear, I needn’t have been worried. Where this film succeeds, is with the treatment of its characters. Each is recognisable as themselves twenty years on, we meet them in situations that fit exactly with that you’d expect for each, and their actions and the direction their lives take throughout the film are within character and believable (with the exception of Spud going on to write Trainspotting, which I thought was a step too far).
Largely this is down to a good script (to be expected from a combined team of the original Trainspotting author and adaptor) and fantastic performances. I love Ewan McGregor, but I think he was badly out-shon by each of his co-stars. Ewen Bremner steals the show for me, and pretty early on this becomes “Spud’s story”.
I also needn’t have worried about being harrowed. This film is much tamer than the original, gentler to its characters, but probably to its detriment.
I vividly remember the first time I watched Trainspotting. I was about 15 years old and watched it as part of a Film 4 double bill with Fight Club. Fight Club finished, Trainspotting came on, and I was aware that it was a cult film that people talked about so I kept watching. That first time was a deeply uncomfortable experience, I’d never seen anything like it. I made it up to the part with the dead baby, said to myself “too rich for my blood”, turned off the TV and went to bed. Before long I’d bought the DVD and became a fan. I had one of those “choose life” posters on my door. My dad told me he disapproved of the swearing but because it was a great film, it was ok.
The point is, that uncomfort is part of what makes the first film great. Trainspotting was many things, but most of all it was bold – in style and story. It didn’t flinch, it didn’t hold back, in fact it smacked it up onto the screen in front of you and held it there until you had to look away.
By all accounts, this film is far less daring and the continual flash backs to the first film only serve to remind how much better that was (as well as creating a weird sense that this film is a strange homage to the first one, rather than a sequel. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen one film celebrate another so much, it reminded me of the clips of his own films Danny Boyle included in the Olympic opening ceremony). This is especially the case with Renton and Sickboy’s confrontation over the deaths of Tommy and baby Dawn, which didn’t have any narrative function as far as I can see. The only effect it had was to remind me how much higher the stakes were in the last film.
In this film, by contrast, everyone comes out of it relatively unscathed. Characters are in jeopardy – I spent the entire film willing Spud not to be killed and hoping I wasn’t going to have to watch Begbie beat his wife or son – but by the conclusion it was clear T2 wasn’t that kind of film. Not to say I am disappointed that either of those specific things didn’t happen but I think it would have been a better film if something had. In this sense, T2 is a less satisfying successor to Trainspotting than the proudly shocking Filth (2013) was. Badly underrated, Filth is obviously not a sequel to Trainspotting – it has different characters, themes, issues – but it is true to the Welshian sense of visceral drama. It is anything but pretty, but my God you canny look away. It also had a brilliant marketing campaign and one of my favourite film posters – but my rantings on the appreciation on Filth are for another blog.
As always with Danny Boyle, the style in this film was killer. My only complaint would be that some of my favourite shots – mostly around Spud’s attempted suicide – were in the trailer and covered in the first 20 minutes of the film (with little consequence). But I love it when a film captures a time, it’s one of the things the first Trainspotting did so well, and Danny Boyle does a good job of taking the oh-so-sleek 2010s, turning it over, and showing its grimy underbelly. Of course, this is best captured in Renton’s updated “choose life” speech, which was in danger of being a little on the nose but, combined with Veronika’s quiet pause, was actually one of my favourite parts of the film. I would buy another poster with that on.
My final thought on the film is that it suffers from the same issue many sequels have, on not being able to deliver on the promise of the original ending. Renton walking over that Bridge with £12k (I’d forgotten it was so little) is one of my favourite film endings. You knew he was not going to have an easy life, but there was hope, and I was happy to leave him there. Having the character picked up again is fine, but unfortunately Renton’s storyline was peripheral to this film. His past 20 years were quickly expositioned (new verb) in the first half of the film and all interest in the character really left there, he doesn’t really get a resolution.
I did enjoy this film, for the sheer fact of being able to spend more time with the characters. It is fun to catch up with them, see what they’re up to now, find out a little more about them. But with the original Trainspotting being the bar that we mark these things, this film does fall short. While I was watching, I was glad that I didn’t have to squirm. But having now watched it, ultimately I thought it was too reverent of its characters, didn’t take enough risks, and consequently left me with less closure than the original did – where I think a good sequel should give you more.