‘T2 Trainspotting’ Is a Transcendent Blend of Nostalgia and Reality
Commonly referred to as “kitchen sink realism,” the Angry Young Men movement questioned the British status quo in the post-WWII era and explored issues of the lower class and their struggle with poverty, work, and harsh living environments. These working class Britons lived in council housing, real estate that’s largely ignored by the government and thus disregarded by society and located on the outskirts of England’s cities. Films like Robert Hamer’s French neo poetic realism-esque It Always Rains on Sunday (1947), plays such as Osborne’s aforementioned Look Back in Anger and Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey (1958) and other works of art produced during this movement often depicted overcrowded living environments surrounded by local pubs in their stories, where characters would drown their sorrows and bond over common grievances of the hardships of living with economic uncertainty.
On stage, in literature, and in film, the genre conveyed a collective unease of the working class often expressed through bursts of cursing and crudeness juxtaposed with a blunt realism that reflected issues ranging from homelessness, to violent crime to human rights. Welsh’s novel was one of the modern British pieces of fiction that many characterize as part of the “New Angry Young Men” movement, which utilized the themes of the literary genre’s predecessor and applied them to the counterculture of British youth in the ‘90s. In Trainspotting(1996), film audiences saw the realism and themes explored throughout the prior Angry Young Men works of art and the film’s source material through the primary characters’ poverty, living conditions, and general rebellion against society and consumerism expressed in an angry and immature fashion by its lovable hooligans, Renton (Ewan McGregor), Sick Boy (Johnny Lee Miller), Begbie (Robert Carlyle), and Spud (Ewen Bremner). Trainspotting depicted the overpopulated, crammed neighborhood of lower-class Leith, Edinburgh, Scotland, one of the least gentrified towns in the UK at that time. Both Welsh’s novel and Boyle and Hodge’s film defined the Generation X of Scotland within their respective literary and film communities.
The novel’s sense of urgency in describing the declining quality of life of the lower class of the UK, particularly in Scotland, fit perfectly with Boyle’s directorial style, which is often characterized by fast pacing, innovative camera angles and movements, and frequent utilization of the Kuleshov effect, a film editing technique wherein the filmmaker uses one image or roll of film, and intermittently pieces another image (or images) while showing the image or rolling the edited film. This style has been perfected by Boyle, who often plays with the interaction among several visuals with a quicker use of the classic technique, and incorporates other senses such as sound, music, and animation. This pacing, editing, and storytelling style of Boyle and screenwriter John Hodge’s Oscar-nominated adaptation are part of what made the film version Trainspotting such a resounding success. It sits at number 158 on IMDb’s Top Films of All Time list, won Best Adapted Screenplay at the BAFTA Awards, and received another 19 wins and 27 nominations over various festival and awards ceremonies around the world.
The drug-filled film launched the careers of Boyle, Ewan McGregor, and Jonny Lee Miller. Its soundtrack introduced British electronica to the world and portrayed onscreen the “rave” movement of the’90s. Rolling Stone magazine ranks the soundtracks 13th on its list of The 25 Greatest Soundtracks of All Time in 2013. (The second soundtrack consisted of songs featured in the second film but excluded from the first soundtrack). Divided into three generational parts, the first portion of the soundtrack is characterized by ‘90s international pop such as Iggy Pop and Lou Reed, both of whom were referenced in Welsh’s novel, and Brian Eno (a trailblazer in the electronic ambient genre). The second part consists of bands like Joy Division, Blur, and Pulp reflecting the Britpop movement in music. The third part was popular techno and dance music featuring bands like Leftfield, Bedroc, Elastica, and particularly Underworld, whose song “Born Slippy” was Trainspotting’s anthem. The soundtrack simultaneously reintroduced the world to an older generation of genres while introducing it to the new techno music of the decade.
Based on Welsh’s follow-up novel to Trainspotting, Porn, T2 Trainspotting sees the whole cast of characters, less Tommy (Kevin McKidd), who died in the first film, back together after a 20-year hiatus. Part of what took so long for this film to be made was an off-screen fallout in Boyle and McGregor’s friendship, who worked together until 2000’s The Beach, when Boyle cast Leonardo DiCaprio instead of McGregor. McGregor was offended by the way Boyle worded the news to him and acknowledged that he may have misinterpreted the event, while Boyle realized he did not treat McGregor with the respect he deserved. After not talking for nearly 15 years, their reconciliation streamlined the sequel into production. Boyle is not as limited by Welsh’s work with this sequel; with John Hodge’s script, he has more creative control as to which direction these characters can go. The 20 years in between films is a long time to keep the franchise’s loyal fan base, and, for that matter, the entire film community anticipating a follow up due to the first film’s ambiguous ending, where the audience sees Renton (McGregor) stealing money from his friends who consistently held him back from being sober and taking off for a supposed new life.
Now I’ve justified this to myself in all sorts of ways. It wasn’t a big deal, just a minor betrayal. Or we’d outgrown each other, you know, that sort of thing. But let’s face it, I ripped them off—my so-called mates. But Begbie, I couldn’t give a shit about him. And Sick Boy, well he’d done the same to me if he’d only thought of it first. And Spud, well okay, I felt sorry for Spud—he never hurt anybody.
So why did I do it? I could offer a million answers—all false. The truth is that I’m a bad person. But, that’s gonna change—I’m going to change. This is the last of that sort of thing. Now I’m cleaning up and I’m moving on, going straight and choosing life. I’m looking forward to it already. I’m gonna be just like you. The job, the family, the fucking big television. The washing machine, the car, the compact disc and electric tin opener, good health, low cholesterol, dental insurance, mortgage, starter home, leisure wear, luggage, three-piece suite, DIY, game shows, junk food, children, walks in the park, nine-to-five, good at golf, washing the car, choice of sweaters, family Christmas, indexed pension, tax exemption, clearing gutters, getting by, looking ahead, the day you die.
Those were Renton’s final words of the film. For years, this powerful monologue has often been quoted. The sequel has its own tonal response to this monologue that reflects the series’ new tone, and it’s equally impactful.
Right away, the viewer learns the fate of Renton and that of the other characters. Renton has replaced his addiction to heroin with that of exercise, namely running as a means to get high on endorphins. He’s recently divorced, infertile, and visiting Edinburgh for the first time from Amsterdam, where he has been living since parting Scotland. We come to realize that Renton doesn’t have it all figured out, despite his healthy exterior, and that visiting Leith is a last resort to try and reconnect with the only people who ever meant anything to him.
This sets an instantly sobering tone (pardon the pun) not seen in as raw of a form in the first film. A suicidal Spud has spent the last 20 years remaining a heroin junkie, shunned by his wife and kid. Sick Boy, now preferring his birth name, Simon, has replaced his heroin addiction with cocaine. Begbie, not surprisingly, has been in jail for the last 20 years. During a moment of classic “Begbie” rage, he escapes jail by asking one of his prison mates to stab him, thus sending him to the hospital and allowing him to escape after a forceful encounter with one of the nurses. Since Begbie was the person who Renton screwed over the most in the first film, he has one thing on his mind, and that is Renton’s blood.
Simon runs a blackmail scheme out of a hotel with his “girlfriend”, Veronika, a Bulgarian immigrant who we learn has ulterior motives that add a surprising emotional payoff in the end. Together, they blackmail wealthy businessmen who pay Veronika to sodomize them, while Simon films it. From this money, his ultimate goal is to turn the old pub seen in the first film, which he now runs, into a brothel to compete with a local crime boss for the majority share of the prostitution market. This also serves as a subtext throughout the film that emphasizes the importance of (while also cheekily making fun of) government-sanctioned gentrification aimed at economic gain and social improvements like education and healthcare, which is often disregarded by large, centralized governments in smaller suburbs. What’s replaced by the ramblings and complaints of the characters in the first film is a path leading toward a solution to their disillusionment.
As Spud still represents the most “innocent” person in his past, he’s the first person Renton visits. Renton arrives at Spud’s flat just in time to save him from killing himself from asphyxiation. He is first met with hostility, and then with a warm greeting. Spud has been lost without him; he has not been able to stay clean for his wife, Gail (Shirley Henderson of the first film) and kid. It’s important that Renton expresses to Spud that they will always be addicts, it’s just a matter of replacing that addiction with something else. This establishes the film’s main theme of recovery. After all, with heroin, it’s almost always recovery or death.
Renton’s next move is to make amends with Simon. Simon greets him with anger and aggression as first, and soon after reveals his plans to start a brothel with Veronika, asking him to join as a partner. Secretly, he tells Veronika of his plan of exacting revenge; in reality, Simon is using Renton to regain his money, interest on the money, and somehow get the last 20 years of his life back. After Begbie shows up at his pub, Simon informs him of Renton’s return, and the two of them bond over their bitterness towards Renton and form their own plan.
The sense of urgency and conveyed anxiety of the first film is gone, and Boyle sets a new tone for this cinematic universe, one that is more soulful and heartfelt. Although Boyle’s signature quick takes, flashes, and skewed camera angles (he uses impressive CGI to accentuate his signature use of Kuleshov effect) are present in the film, but he takes more time in his scenes. Boyle lets the conversations and interactions among these characters linger, their facial contortions twitching just a bit longer than usual, and in so doing heightens the viewer’s feeling of nostalgia. There are throwbacks to Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, and ‘90s British electronica as heard in the first film, but the T2 Trainspotting soundtrack displays how the music and club scene has changed, as if the new pop culture has made the aging characters outsiders in their own town. A younger generation has taken over the scene. This irony is at once comical and melancholy. The Prodigy remixes Iggy Pop’s Lust for Life, and the audience can expect new songs from music groups Wolf Alice, Fat White Family, and Young Fathers, whose track, Only God Knows, Boyle calls the Born Slippy-esque heartbeat of this sequel. However, this time around, the soundtrack takes a backseat to the character development.
Though the audience sees glimpses of the Angry Young Men movement’s energy in this sequel approaching the surface, it’s largely kept at bay. Its themes can still be seen through the lovable characters, appearing occasionally in their interactions, but, until the film’s climax, the mood of the film is relatively tranquil and, for the most part, pleasing. Not everything is hunky dory, however. These characters have aged, but old habits die hard, and the sharp script by Hodge conveys this concept pitch-perfectly; time is all these characters have and, fighting their wilder instincts, they struggle not to make the same mistakes of the past. Some of them inevitably do in scenes that Boyle and Hodge intentionally incorporate to parallel the euphoric feeling of iconic scenes of the first film.
The best monologue in the film, again, goes to Renton in his aforementioned response to the first film’s closing lines, during which he explains to Veronika what the “choose life” mantra he and his mates always repeated really meant. He begins to channel the first film’s energy, transporting the audience through a time portal to 1996 for a brief but eloquent two minutes. As Renton begins using examples of how his friends would apply the slogan to everyday life, he pours out his personal struggles and regrets over the past 20 years, all while making sharp social commentary about how the world and society has changed:
Choose life. Choose life was a well-meaning slogan from a 1980s anti-drug campaign. And we used to add things to it. So I might say, for example, choose designer lingerie in a vain hope of kicking some life back into a dead relationship. Choose handbags. Choose high heeled shoes, cashmere, and silk to make yourself feel what passes for happy. Choose an iPhone made in China by a woman who jumped out of a window and stick it in your pocket fresh from a South Asian firetrap. Choose Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, and a thousand other ways to spew your bile across people you’ve never met. Choose updating your profile. Tell the world what you had for breakfast and hope that someone, somewhere cares. Choose looking up old flames, desperate to believe that they don’t look as bad as you do. Choose live blogging from your first wank to your last breath, human interaction reduced to nothing more than data. Choose ten things you never knew about celebrities who’ve had surgery. Choose screaming about abortion. Choose rape chokes, slut shaming, revenge porn, and an endless tide of depressing subjects. Choose 9/11 never happened, and if it did it was the Jews. Choose a zero-hour contract, a two-hour journey to work.
And choose the same for your kids, only worse, and maybe tell yourself it’s better that way. And then sit back and smother the pain with an unknown dose of an unknown drug made in somebody’s fucking kitchen. Choose unfulfilled promise, 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 always hoped for. Settle for less and keep a brave face on it. Choose disappointment. And choose losing the ones you loved and 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 for you to call a life or bed. Choose your future, Veronika. Choose life.
Irvine and Hodge channel the urgency of the first film through the energy of this monologue. Although matching the intensity of that of the original ending’s “choose life” monologue, it’s characterized less by a humorous and ironic tone, and more of a regret, bitterness, and conveyed feeling of self-actualization. The old flame Renton is referring to is his old lover, Diane (Kelly Macdonald of the first film), and the family he lost since leaving Leith was his mother, to whom he never had a chance to say goodbye.
This moment of honesty that Renton’s new “choose life” rant begets creates an emotional bond between the Veronika and Renton, and a brief love affair ensues, during which Renton and Veronika truly share their true selves with each other. It’s here where Veronika makes her decision to not participate in Simon’s plan. Wider Edinburgh area is now more ethnically diverse, as sometimes people, like Veronica, immigrate to the UK and other democratic countries in search of opportunity or to support families back home, only to have their dignity questioned and get sucked into crime. Still, somehow Leith has avoided gentrification, for the most part. His remains a predominantly lower class and under-developed town that seems frozen in time.
Inevitably, Veronika and Simon’s blackmail scheme fails. Luckily, however, a friendly face from the past, Diane, now a lawyer, pulls some strings to get them off the hook. This brief encounter adds a lot of weight to Renton’s regret. Renton’s encounter with Diane is brief but meaningful. There’s no more love between the two, but a longing for the past that is mutually shared through a simple glance. This yearning to lift the stylus and pull it back to the center of life’s proverbial broken record player adds a bitter yet realistic edge to the film’s tone. Eventually, Renton and Simon pitch a fake “building renovation” plan of the old pub (disguising their intentions to turn it into a brothel) to the city of Leith to make it a historical landmark that provides educational opportunities to underprivileged youth, to which the city ironically approves, granting them £100k. This is where the cheekiness of Welsh, Hodge, and Boyle’s sub-commentary on gentrification adds humor to the film. However, Veronika, as mentioned, has a plan for herself, a plan that she has had since moving to Edinburgh. Her character arc expands perspective and widens the film’s world views, ultimately adding a subtle undertone of the importance of immigration and globalization.
The most satisfying new light added to this story is Spud’s addiction recovery and his blossoming as a person. The theme of recovery in T2 Trainspotting goes far beyond merely coping with addiction. These childhood friends struggle to reconcile their troubled pasts, overcome grudges, and ultimately forgive themselves and each other. Refreshingly, Hodge and Boyle decide to delve deeper into their childhoods, thereby accentuating their inseparable bond.
Spud’s passion for writing is fully realized when Veronika begins to take interest in his stories and encourages him. Spud’s stories are not only good, they are honest and poignant. Although uneducated and mostly illiterate, Spud understands how to compile words together in a rhythm and sound that elicits an emotional response from the audience, similar to Boyle’s manipulation of the Kuleshov technique. Spud’s newfound love of storytelling is his way out of heroin addiction, and it also serves as a method for flashbacks, aptly placed by Boyle, and as a meta-narrative for how the rest of the film events unfold. Spud makes a deliberate decision to make his own ending, so to speak, not only to his life but his friends’ lives as well. As his friends begin to read his stories, even Begbie gets choked up and feels the love that’s been hiding inside of him, buried deep down, all this time.
The film’s climax and resolution exudes many emotions at once; it’s equal parts shocking, nostalgic, and euphoric. It’s a wild, blast-from-the-past cat and mouse chase scene, wherein all of the characters’ grievances catapult into action in a tragicomic blend of events. Consider it an antithesis to the first film’s ending.
This masterful sequel expands upon the universe created by Boyle, Hodge, and Welsh, and adds to the multifaceted story, updating the social and political commentary to the current times, though it likely will not leave as much of a lasting impact on popular culture as the first film did. It would be difficult to achieve something more culturally influential than the original Trainspotting film. That’s not what Boyle was going for, anyway. This story and these characters’ lives needed closure. Hodge and Boyle knew they had a larger narrative to tell of recovery and realistic character resolution. Addiction is not a joke, it’s a lifelong disease, and if there’s one thing both of these films highlight, despite many darkly comedic moments, it’s that addiction has dire consequences. However, the human spirit is strong enough to overcome it and replace it with something else. Though this idea may sound cloying to some, Hodge and Boyle subtly slip this theme in an envelope under the door, if you will, and thereby deliver the message with finesse and a characteristically honest lens.
The film’s final shot of Renton dancing on the exact same spot in his room to the quintessential song, Iggy Pop’s updated “Lust for Life”, the original version of which opened the first Trainspotting and evaded this 117-minute sequel until just before the final credits, is Boyle’s best use of the Kuleshov technique in the film. It blends Renton’s past and present mannerisms and physicality of both films harmoniously, meshing the two paralleling dancing scenes together, creating a transformative feeling that will leave a lasting impression. Within the context of the two films, it’s this song serves as the exclamation point that ties the stories together as a whole. Do not rush turn away from the concluding frames of this film too quickly. Let that final shot and innovative CGI-animated ending credits consume you, and enjoy The Prodigy’s reinvigorating “Lust for Life” remix of Iggy Pop’s song. Boyle wants the audience to linger and revel in his sequel. Indeed, one cannot help but succumb to Boyle’s intoxicating visuals and fall into a trance, before we finally say Arrivederci! to Renton and his mates, the now recovering addicts.