The week that T2 Trainspotting was released, director Danny Boyle and the films stars – Ewan McGregor, Jonny Lee Miller, Robert Carlyle, and Ewen Bremner – were guests on the Graham Norton Show. On there, Boyle told a story about a warning he received from a member of the public when they were filming T2 Trainspotting …
While shooting a scene atop a high-rise, an impassioned fan pointed at the Oscar-winning director from an adjacent set of flats and said: “This better not be shite, Danny.”
Such was the nervous anticipation surrounding the sequel to Boyle’s 1996 cinematic adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s novel, Trainspotting.
The first film began as a breakout indie hit, grew into a cult classic, and is now considered as one of the best British movies of all time. So the pressure on T2 has been huge. Fans of Trainspotting were understandably apprehensive about the sequel. Especially because we live in an age of sequels and reboots made for nothing other than feeding bovine fans with nostalgia to milk them of their money.
Sick Boy: “Nostalgia. That’s why you’re here. You’re a tourist in your own youth.”
Following a film that is held in such high regard by film fans is difficult enough, but T2 was made all the more difficult to produce by two other factors.
Firstly, the written sequel was released in 2002, when Irvine Welsh’s Porno was published.
Set 10 years after the first instalment, the title of Porno is not subtly drawn from an old story involving the main characters as Trainspotting is. No, Porno is about Sick Boy enlisting his pals to break into the pornography industry and, therefore, involves a lot of graphic sex scenes; making it less than ideal material to convert to film for mainstream cinema viewing, even with an 18 certificate.
Secondly, after Trainspotting, Danny Boyle and his muse Ewan McGregor had a big bust up over the casting of Leonardo DiCaprio in the lead role of Boyle’s fourth feature film, The Beach. It was the first from the Bury-born director that did not feature McGregor in the lead role, despite him originally being led to believe it would be his. The two did not talk for years afterwards.
To navigate around the difficulties of Porno, Boyle reenlisted his faithful screen writer John Hodge, with whom he has worked on films from as long ago as Shallow Grave to as recently as Trance.
Irvine Welsh had a hand in T2 as well, as an executive producer. The novel writer and DJ also reprises his cameo role as drug-peddling low-life Mikey Forrester, who has gone up in the world. No longer is he dishing out opium suppositories among other things, he now has a warehouse space filled with stolen televisions and fridge freezers filled with Viagra.
So, once Messrs Boyle and McGregor were able to reconcile, the sequel was on. And reconcile they did. Obviously.
T2 Trainspotting begins with a typically stylish round-up of the main characters’ whereabouts 20 years since we last saw them.
Having stolen £16,000 from his ‘best mates’, Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor) is in exile in Amsterdam where he has seemingly replaced his addiction to smack with the fitness bug. Daniel ‘Spud’ Murphy (Ewen Bremner), however, is still seeking help for his habit. Robert Carlyle’s Francis Begbie is in prison. And Simon ‘Sick Boy’ Williamson (Jonny Lee Miller) is scratching a living running his aunt’s pub … while also blackmailing rich men with videos of them being done up the arse by a mysterious woman wearing a strap-on dildo.
The reintroduction of the old gang is explosive. An unrecognisable Renton is running on a treadmill while the blistering Shotgun Mouthwash by High Contrast powers into your ears. Of course, Trainspotting began with Renton running (to the legendary Lust For Life by Iggy Pop), only that was away from security officers trying to catch him for stealing goods to fund his drug habit; so Renton has come a long way.
That is then juxtaposed with Begbie’s entrance. Two decades of reflection in prison have only reinforced his violent tendencies. He hasn’t changed at all; still every bit the mustachioed menace we remember, only now he is trapped inside.
Similarly, Spud is still the guy we remember – a shambolic junky. His clownish antics continue to provide comic relief in T2, but he is given much more depth this time round as he tries desperately to do something good with his messed up life.
Sick Boy carries the greatest air of frustration at how things have turned out for him. After all, he was the member of the group who seemed to talk, walk and dress with the greatest confidence. Yet his life has come to nothing. He has failed at every sordid venture he’s put his name to and as a father too.
Once all of the main characters have been reintroduced with gusto, it comes as a huge relief when it dawns on you that this is a Danny Boyle film, and you are in the safest of hands.
Despite Renton, Sick Boy, Spud and Begbie being plastered everywhere on posters for the T2 promotion campaign, the plot of the film actually revolves around a new character. It is Veronika – both Sick Boy’s girlfriend and the girl with the strap-on dildo (NOT a Stieg Larsson book, by the way) – who holds all the cards in T2.
Renton returns from Amsterdam and is immediately smitten by the beautiful Bulgarian (played by the relatively unknown Anjela Nedyalkova), leading him to become embroiled in one of Sick Boy’s schemes. Which, as you would assume, is to start a brothel on the second floor of the pub for his lovely lady to run.
So begins the daring scam to drum up the money for the business. Begbie, meanwhile, is on the loose and wreaking his own personal brand of havoc.
While all this is happening at what seems like the pace of one of Sick Boy’s coke-fuelled nights in, T2 plays out as a painful lament to lost youth.
Boyle is undoubtedly an expert film maker, and he makes no mistake of driving home the sheer agony of growing old and having nothing good to show for it. It is so excruciating not because the tone of the film is sombre throughout, but because the bursts of cheeriness are so incredibly bright and bold … and yet fleeting. What is more, they always pale in comparison to the joys the characters felt as young lads growing up together. Memories of their youth appear frequently as wonderful dreamlike scenes from which the harsh reality of adulthood always quickly jolts them awake.
This gives the Renton and co. much more depth than they were afforded in Trainspotting. Whether it is light touches such as Begbie’s erectile dysfunction (small and apparently inconsequential, in more than one way), or key developments like Spud writing down all of his and the gang’s stories from down the years, each role is beefed up.
The greatest thing about T2 is its faithfulness to its genesis. Not only does it look back on Trainspotting with fondness and direct references but it is true to everything else about what made the first film great.
As well as Danny Boyle at the helm, every surviving character is back and all played superbly by the actors who played them first time. Even Kelly Macdonald features as a much more mature and sensible Diane, albeit briefly.
Edinburgh plays a much bigger part in this movie too. That includes not only the setting of scenes in the city centre and the scenery overlooking it, but also the decision to have Edinburgh hip-hop group Young Fathers provide the thumping heartbeat that keeps life flowing through T2. With three songs on the official soundtrack and another three featured elsewhere in the film, they were given the role of vital organ, similar to what Underworld did for Trainspotting.
One of the main talking points of the first film was of course its incredible soundtrack. It’s usually the first thing anyone says about Trainspotting whenever it comes up in conversation. So, as expected, music plays a big part in the sequel.
The sound of T2, like the film itself, acknowledges just how great its predecessor was, but it brings it up to date. The Prodigy remix of Lust For Life and Underworld’s reworking of Born Slippy into the new track Slow Slippy are the greatest examples of this. Underworld’s Rick Smith actually said of the music: “The brief wasn’t to copy the past, there was a lot of experimenting. Echoing was the idea, using music ideas from the first film looking forward through time.”
Other new(ish) music comes from Mercury Prize nominees Wolf Alice, Fat White Family, and the aforementioned High Contrast. Then there is the track from the ludicrously barmy Irish double-act Rubberbandits, whose video for My Dad’s Best Friend is played in part of the film too. They put their appearance down to joining the Freemasons, where they worshipped an owl and sacrificed ferrets to get the gig. As you do.
They are interlaced with classic 80s tracks like Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s Relax, Blondie’s Dreaming, and Radio Ga Ga by Queen, along with the slightly more modern dancefloor classic It’s Like That by Run DMC vs Jason Nevins. The latter two songs appear to be a little misplaced among a club scene that feels forced though.
Perhaps the most striking musical moment in T2 is in the nod to David Bowie. Bowie was apparently influential in making the sound of the first film happen. He was a fan of Danny Boyle’s first feature, Shallow Grave, and was famously friends with Iggy Pop and Lou Reed, so he was able to sort clearance for their songs to be used in Trainspotting. Boyle could not decide on one Bowie song he wanted to use as a tribute to the great man in T2. Instead he chose to turn all the sound off while Renton is flicking through his vinyls and reveals Bowie’s immortal place in our music collections, as well as our hearts and minds.
Then there are subtle nostalgic nods to the Trainspotting soundtrack. Like with the piano version of Perfect Day playing gently when Renton passes out in the gym and sees flashbacks of his childhood. And when Deep Blue Day by Brian Eno lulls him gently back into consciousness on another separate occasion.
T2 is not the perfect film, but it is the sequel that fans of Trainspotting wanted. It is bold, brash, disgusting, and violent. Yet it is tender, sweet, and comforting for every adult watching it who can empathise with the pain each character feels about life failing to live up to expectations.
Renton: “So … we all get old, we canne hack it anymore, and that’s it?”
Sick Boy: “Yeah.”
Renton: “That’s your theory?”
Sick Boy: “Yeah … beautifully fucking illustrated.”