At 21 years’ remove, it's hard to convey what a shock to the system 1996's Trainspotting was, with its freewheeling confrontational style, electric, eclectic soundtrack and unblinking tragicomic portrait of urban deprivation and heroin addiction. Not only did it propel its director and stars to a whole new level, it became a poster child of British independent cinema, all snarling attitude and chants of "lager, lager, lager" wrapped around a searing monologue bemoaning consumer culture and the existential despair of a modern life from which its protagonists could hope to find nothing but escape, even at the cost of screwing over their childhood pals in a drug deal.
Very loosely adapted from Porno, Irvine Welsh's sequel novel, T2 Trainspotting finds those same pals now sliding into middle age: Mark suffering the kind of cardiac event that stops a 46-year-old man in his tracks, Simon stalling out as a small-time crook barely staying a step behind gentrification, Begbie facing the prospect of another five years stewing in prison, and Spud essentially unable to function in society after his years of addiction. Sketching out their lives in a blistering series of opening vignettes, director Danny Boyle immediately throws down the film-making gauntlet, effortlessly demonstrating that while it might be the work of an older, more experienced director, this sequel’s just as unafraid of jump cuts, unusual camera placement, freeze frames and surreal images as its forebear. There’s an extra layer of self-assurance and polish, but the visual grammar and stylistic tics are immediately familiar.
Equally familiar are the performances: the principal cast of Trainspotting also returns and it’s as if the characters themselves have just got on with their lives in the meantime, the passage of the years evident in their features, figures and hairlines. Obviously this gets a free assist from the actors’ natural aging (and Boyle doesn’t spare them the close-ups, wrinkles and all), but the way they drop straight into those same mannerisms and cadences only heightens the sensation of visiting old friends after many years away from home.
Which is exactly what Mark does, leaving his adopted Amsterdam for an Edinburgh that’s changed as much as it’s remained the same, seeking not to face the music – he can bear no more than a second of the soundtrack’s first needle-drop – nor atone for the past, but to confront the future, to choose what to do with the rest of his life. Spud sees no future beyond heroin, the only friend that never left him, but Mark’s return injects him with a new determination to get off the skag, while Simon’s plans to turn his aunt’s run-down pub into a brothel for his accomplice and maybe-girlfriend Veronika (played by newcomer Anjela Nedyalkova) become a means of exacting revenge for his blood brother’s betrayal. Begbie busts out of jail to secure his legacy by inducting his reluctant son into the life of petty crime which is all he knows, but, sharklike slave to savage impulse that he is, leaps at the opportunity to right the wrong Mark did his precious masculinity and pride all those years ago.
Echoes and shadows of the past are woven throughout T2 Trainspotting, often literally as it cuts in flashback footage from Trainspotting and grainy Super 8 home movies from some putative Trainspotting 0, or conjures new images homaging scenes we’ve seen before or only read in Welsh’s novels, a tapestry of shared memories that rekindles Mark and Simon’s bond, imbues Spud with a purpose and steers Begbie into introspection. This juxtaposition of the innocent childish faces of what are recognisably the same characters with their older selves as they wrestle with, and reflect upon, the things they’ve done and the people they’ve become is powerfully poignant and deeply affecting, yet T2 Trainspotting is never maudlin; every melancholy moment is balanced with humour, often in the same scene, even the same shot. Frequently uncomfortable they may be, but Boyle’s purposeful control of these tonal shifts is so total and delightful they’re never jarring.
The film’s social conscience also gets in on the interplay of past, present and future, contrasting the demolition of 1960s high-rises and 19th century industrial heritage with the advance of luxury apartments, faceless hotels and swank bars, yet finding no sympathy for the Orangemen whose devotion to the past Mark and Simon take modern-day advantage of in a robbery which escalates awkwardness into comically dubious triumph in one of the film’s centrepieces. They remain implicit, but real-life questions of Scotland’s independence and European identity mirror Mark’s own search for self, while the Slovenian airport greeter and Bulgarian Veronika are the acceptable faces of the economic migrants which resurgent right-wing politics seek to vilify even as they prop up the economy. John Hodge’s script may predate Brexit and Trump, but it certainly knew which way the wind was blowing.
Veronika’s outsider perspective, coupled with a bluntness born of speaking in a foreign tongue, allows her to see and say the things the men never would, but she’s no empty vessel for their mid-life crises: shrewd and cunning, she has plans and a past of her own to grapple with. “She’s too young for you,” Diane tells Mark at the end of her one all-too-brief scene, and the words that are left unsaid between them say as much about their own shared history as any conception Veronika has of her future.
Yet she’s still curious about the past, and when she asks Mark what “Choose life” means, the monologue is updated for the ages, the youthful piss and vinegar parlayed into a lament for paths not taken and time and lives wasted, a rejection of the pursuit of external validation that permeates modern selfie culture. Laced with irony and wistfully delivered, Mark downplays it as a bygone, a firebrand manifesto once maybe half-believed, now burnt out and set aside as the product of youthful hubris and self-deception.
This reframing of history through the lens of the present enters the meta in the final act as T2 Trainspotting exposes itself as truly Spud’s story, one that not only reveals life’s patterns but also recontextualises everything that happens in both T2 Trainspotting and Trainspotting for the characters and the audience. An audacious act of reflexive screenwriting that reaches out to encompass the novels too, this is breathtaking and hugely rewarding, closing narrative and thematic loops of both films whilst also opening up every part of them to re-examination, and in the process wholly justifying this sequel’s existence.
The final act also shifts the film from loose-limbed hangout into a more plot-driven mode, all the strands coming together in deception and confrontation on many levels, which nonetheless remain rooted in character as ultimately Mark is forced to confront mortality. With the exception of Simon, whose subplot fails to add up to much and sidelines him for much of its second half, the film brings the various character arcs to satisfying and touching conclusions, even Begbie obtains an absolution of sorts as history’s cycle is broken, securing the future not just of these characters, but also their children.
The cinematic landscape has moved on in the last 21 years, and T2 Trainspotting acknowledges it can’t expect to have the same impact as its forebear. It’s wise enough, though, to know this doesn’t matter, instead taking the opportunity to explore male friendships and the existential ennui of middle age, deepening its characters without betraying them. As he closes the door of the childhood bedroom untouched since last he left, drops that needle once again and dances into infinity, it’s hard not to share the joy Mark finds simply in survival: in being alive.