'T2 Trainspotting' Is a Transcendent Blend of Nostalgia and Reality
T2 Trainspotting knows its roots in the Angry Young Men movement and acknowledges its sentimentality. But it has something more important to say.
Audiences have been waiting 20 years for a sequel to Danny Boyle's original Trainspotting (based on Irvine Welsh’s novel of the same name), a masterpiece and worldwide pop-culture phenomenon. Welsh’s novel channeled the energy of the “Angry Young Men” British counter-cultural movement founded by a group of English artists who grew disquieted by the classism of modern society in the late '50s and '60s. The two prominent founders of this movement were screenwriter, actor, and playwright, John Osborne [stage plays, Look Back in Anger (1956), The Entertainer (1957, film adaptation, 1960), and The World of Paul Slickey (1959), and poet, literary critic, and novelist, Kingsley Amis (novels, Lucky Jim (1954), That Uncertain Feeling (1955, adapted into a film starring Peter Sellers in 1962, and a series starring Denis Lawson and Sheila Gish in 1985), and Take a Girl Like You (1960)].
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.
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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.
Renton (Ewan McGregor) and Simon/Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller) reminisce about their fallen friend, Tommy.
“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.