T2 Trainspotting review – still in a class A of their own

Danny Boyle’s long-awaited sequel to the era-defining Trainspotting is a vibrant and welcome reunion

There are few cinema images more iconic than the sight of Ewan McGregor’s feet hitting the ground running to the frantic drumbeats of Iggy Pop’s Lust for Life in the opening moments of Trainspotting, or the sound of a poppy T-shirt slogan (“Choose life”) being turned into a scabrous countercultural call to arms. Both are cheekily revisited in T2 Trainspotting, the long-awaited (or perhaps feared?) sequel that catches up with novelist Irvine Welsh’s antiheroes two decades later, and finds them ravaged not so much by heroin as by age, emasculation and an air of disappointment.

No longer the angry young man who once tore down Edinburgh’s Princes Street, McGregor’s Renton is here introduced pounding a gymnasium treadmill, a sardonic nod to former fast times. Drawn back to his old haunts in the wake of a midlife crisis, he is shocked to find Spud (Ewen Bremner) with his head in a plastic bag, longing to end his miserable existence. Meanwhile, Jonny Lee Miller’s broilingly embittered Simon (AKA “Sick Boy”) spends his days nursing old grievances against his former “best friend” who ran off with his loot 20 years ago (“First there was an opportunity”, runs a recurrent line, “then there was a betrayal”). As for Begbie (Robert Carlyle), a lengthy spell behind bars has estranged him from his teenage son, leaving him to face up to lonely fatherhood truths, tingeing his still violent sociopathy with a streak of pathos.

T2 Trainspotting - full trailer for the sequel to the 1996 hit

It’s easy to forget just how shocking Trainspotting’s scenes of intravenous heroin use were, and how much the language of horror cinema inflected its shiversome visions of dead babies crawling across ceilings. Yet more shocking still would be the spectre of the original film-makers reteaming for a belated cash-in sequel that somehow undermined the enduring legacy of the original. “It’d better not be shite” was the phrase that director Danny Boyle remembers hearing repeatedly on the set of T2 Trainspotting, whispered by everyone from cast to crew. Thankfully, T2 is definitely not “shite”. While it may lack the vampiric teeth of its youthful predecessor, it is a worthy sequel to what has become a sacred original, respecting the rough edges of its forerunner while putting middle-aged flesh on the once raw ribcages of its oddly sympathetic subjects.

Drawing on both Welsh’s 1993 novel and its 2002 sequel, Porno, returning screenwriter John Hodge forges new narrative paths, remembering the glory days of yore without becoming what Simon calls “a tourist in your own youth”. The story may be driven by extortion, prostitution, addiction and even Death Wish-style revenge, but its primary concerns are friendship and memory (recurrent Boyle themes), with editor Jon Harris shuffling time frames like playing cards, old knaves coming face to face with new kings and queens, the latter in the shape of Anjela Nedyalkova’s enigmatic Veronika.

Jonny Lee Miller and Ewan McGregor rolling back the years.
Jonny Lee Miller and Ewan McGregor rolling back the years. Photograph: Graeme Hunter

The real triumph of the original Trainspotting was that it gave vibrant voice to protagonists who would elsewhere be written off as deadbeats, turning them into empowered characters rather than downtrodden victims. The same is true of the sequel, nowhere more so than in the character of Spud, who gradually becomes the true heart of the drama, the author of his own story. Bremner is just terrific in the role, his Keatonesque physicality perfectly capturing Spud’s blend of fragility and resilience, finding hidden depths beneath the defensively gormless facade. Like the movie itself, Spud can be both hilarious and heartbreaking; you want to hug him, even when his face is explosively splattered with vomit.

Visually, T2 reminds us that Boyle comes from a rebellious lineage of British cinema that can be traced back through Nicolas Roeg and Ken Russell to the classic films of Powell and Pressburger (the latter the grandfather of Trainspotting producer Andrew Macdonald). Cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle quotes affectionately from his predecessor Brian Tufano’s kinetic playbook, and the bold colour schemes of Kave Quinn’s original production designs haunt the new locations. Yet this new movie retains a distinctly modern edge even as it looks back to the future. On the soundtrack, Underworld’s Rick Smith provides “original score and needle drops”, which blend altered fragments of old favourites with newer offerings from the likes of Young Fathers, High Contrast and Wolf Alice.

How T2 will play to younger audiences who didn’t grow up with the 1996 original is anyone’s guess. It’s hardly likely to become a touchstone text for a new generation of cinemagoers. But from the perspective of a fiftysomething film fan who was shaken up by Trainspotting all those years ago, it’s enough that the opportunity for this class reunion has not become a betrayal.

Contributor

Mark Kermode, Observer film critic

The GuardianTramp

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