Film Review by Debbie Lynn Elias
It’s oft been said, you can’t go home again. But what if you could? What if all the years that passed just melted away as if they had never happened; your besties were still your besties, fun was still fun, and you were still filled with all the rambunctious and reckless energy of youth ready to “choose life”. But what if time did pass and you were now forced to live with all those choices you had made, be they good bad or indifferent, but now had a second chance to “choose life” and do so thanks to going home? For the answers to these questions and more, look no further than director Danny Boyle and TRAINSPOTTING T2, the sequel to “Trainspotting”, a film that defined a generation.
Twenty years ago we first met Mark Renton, Spud, Sick Boy (Simon) and Begbie. Inseparable BFFs. They were up for anything and the poster children for one of the most caustic looks at a generation as one will ever see on screen. Mark, leader of the group, was addicted to heroin (and anything else he could get his hands on) and always filled with one bad idea after another, with attempts at sobriety always falling flat thanks to his less than reliable friends and fellow addicts. Of course, Mark’s biggest problem may have been his under-aged girlfriend Diane. Cleaning himself up and moving to London from his beloved Edinburgh, it didn’t take long for Mark to realize he couldn’t leave his old life behind, especially when Begbie and Sick Boy show up on his doorstep, one in trouble and one with a plan of his own. And with friends like these, it isn’t difficult to fall from this newfound path. Only this time it led to a drug deal gone wrong with Mark taking the money and running, admitting in the film’s final voiceover, “The truth is, I’m a bad person,” he admits in a voice-over. “But that’s going to change.”
And that’s where TRAINSPOTTING T2 picks up. Twenty years later and still off the hook! Mark returns to Edinburgh to look up his old buds. Having been in Amsterdam the past two decades, he is now divorced and somewhat lost. It’s easy to see Mark craves something. Is it the connection with his old friends? Drugs? But without missing a beat, it’s like old times again – almost.
Mark’s best bestie Simon seems pleased to see his old mate, but as the audience knows, this is merely a facade. Simon holds a grudge against Mark the width of the Atlantic after Mark took off with Simon’s share of the money 20 years ago. Begbie is fresh out of prison and even angrier than Simon. And then there’s the hapless and childlike Spud. Married but on the outs with his wife thanks to his never-ending heroin habit, he is the one happiest to see Mark; that is, after Mark saves his life when Spud tries to suffocate and hang himself with a plastic bag tied over his head. Always a follower, never and a leader, Spud needs Mark now more than ever.
Juggling all the balls in the air at once, director Boyle and his longtime cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle (although their collaboration didn’t begin until after “Trainspotting”) keep us embroiled in the boys’ activities at a feverish pace. Renton and Simon have made their peace (or so Mark thinks) thanks to Simon’s girlfriend Veronika, a sex-worker from Bulgaria with big dreams to open her own brothel in Edinburgh, with the help of Simon and his out-of-the-way rundown pub, of course. Begbie has gone mental thanks to his time in prison, hellbent on bringing his own son (anxious to pursue a career in hotel management) into the criminal world. Spud is just lost but loves to write stories, stories about all the drug-induced adventures the boys had back in the day. But it’s Mark Renton who is the connective tissue that ultimately serves for the culminating reunion of the lads.
Written by John Hodge based on Irvine Hodge’s “Porno”, the 2002 follow-up novel to “Trainspotting”, everyone is back for the dance. Unfortunately, much of the dance is just an extension of the original. Once again, the boys celebrate self-destruction, love, hate, friendship and fear, but this time do get to do a few new spins around the dance floor thanks to vengeance. But the past is never far from the present. Thanks to Hodge, we do, however, feel the passage of time while the boys still capture glimpses of the past, allowing them, and the audience, to reminisce, but still moving forward in some respects; most notably through Spud. In many ways TRAINSPOTTING 2 has a longing, but wistfulness of youth about it. There is still a feverishness to the film, thanks to cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle’s lensing, but with a slightly lesser frenzy.
The visuals are eye-popping with some visual tricks incorporated similar to what Boyle and Mantle created with “Trance” a few years ago. Flashbacks are exceedingly well done with, as are recreations of the boys’ world from 20 years ago albeit a bit more rundown. But the visual energy is relentless. Calling on all the tricks up Mantle’s very talented sleeves, we are treated to flashbacks shot in 8mm and camera Dutching with angles that look as if Mantle was standing on his head and twisted sideways. The visuals are innovative, creative and constantly moving with an eagerness that embraces Mark Renton’s own mantra of “Choose Life”.
Adding fuel to Mantle’s fire is not only specific points of color saturation, but the production design of Mark Tildesley and Patrick Rolfe. Jon Harris’ editing completes the visual package with rapier precision.
Performances seamlessly meld the past and present with each actor slipping into their original roles with the comfort of a favorite pair of slippers and blanket. That comfort comes across and allows them to push the boundaries of each character even further this time. There is still the bad boy streak in each of them, but the most striking performance and character development comes thanks to Spud and Ewen Bremner’s work. What a beautiful journey we are taken on as Spud hits rock bottom and then does a complete turn-around with his life. Not shying away from the horrors of addiction and his depressive state, Boyle, Mantle and Bremner immerse us in Spud’s pain – and of course, some of the ensuing laughter that comes from that pain. The most fleshed out of the characters, Spud is also the one that lets go the easiest of baggage from the past when it comes to Renton. Spud doesn’t even live in the past or really long for it. Something that can’t be said for Simon.
Jonny Lee Miller’s Simon has essentially retained the same mentality of 20 years ago, just upping the ante on cons and his need for revenge against Renton. Miller is exemplary in his subterfuge with the added dimension of Simon now “being in love” with his sex-worker girlfriend Veronika. And let’s just say, without any spoilers, for Simon to be outsmarted again, this time not by Renton but by Veronika, is pretty fun to watch.
As comes as no surprise, Ewan McGregor is still the leader of the pack. Interesting is how out of place he makes Renton feel in this re-engagement with his old friends. Yet, he is the rational one, the thinking one, and is a wonderful mentor – along with Veronika – to Spud. And McGregor still has the bad-boyish impish charm we all fell in love with in the original. How can you ever get mad at someone with that smile! Also hard not to notice the inherent polish that McGregor brings to the character, setting Renton apart as the one man who did leave and spread his wings.
A lovely tacit performance from Shirley Henderson as Spud’s estranged wife Gail wraps up the Spud story beautifully and really embraces his growth and maturity – and caring. Imagery in a final scene with Spud and Gail is also beautifully designed with sunlight streaming through the windows against the white window frames and table, giving a backlit glow to Henderson while metaphorically speaking to the bright future ahead for Spud. Wonderful visual design.
Novelist Irvine Welsh is also back in his signature role of Mikey Forrester. Totally off-the-hook with his performance. Robert Carlyle is at the top of his game with a new take on Begbie. And be on the lookout for a nice reprise by Kelly Macdonald of her character in the first film. No longer jail bait for Renton, Diane is now a successful attorney to whom Renton turns to for help.
The soundtrack is as to be expected and in keeping with “Trainspotting”, “effin’ epic!” (Trust me when I say imagine that being said in Ewan McGregor’s voice.) A glorious mix of vintage tracks from Queen, Blondie and Frankie Goes to Hollywood with new voices like Young Fathers and Wolf Alive, are nicely complimented by a ten-minute scene with McGregor and Miller in character at a pro-Protestant club in which they do an improv of “The Battle of the Boyne.” And yes, McGregor is in fine voice.
Like going home, TRAINSPOTTING T2 and the world of Renton, Sick Boy, Spud and Begbie is a nice place to visit every 20 years or so, but you wouldn’t want to live there again. Luckily, Danny Boyle and company give us this visit, but then allows the boys and us to move on with the wonders which yet await them. Hopefully that means a T3. . .
Directed by Danny Boyle. Written by John Hodge based on Irvine Welsh’s novel
Cast: Ewan McGregor, Jonny Lee Miller, Ewen Bremner, Robert Carlyle, Kelly Macdonald, Shirley Henderson
Run time: 1 hr, 57 minutes. Rated: R