A review by Cirilia Rose
I never thought time machines would sell popcorn. Last month my celluloid past rose from the dead as I saw new iterations of 20-year old favorites, both visually arresting classics about the desperate need to escape stifling provincialism. I first saw Beauty and the Beast in 1991 at age 9, living in a remote farm town near the French border (really), homeschooled and as bookish as restless loner Belle. Trainspotting hit 5 years later when I was sneaking into pubs and punk shows, not finding much resistance from divorcing, distracted parents or European authorities. Each film startled me with its relevance, their ability to distill a riot of adolescent feelings and render them visceral, each magical in its own way, and bloody entertaining. They delighted me with their narrative ambition, splendor and squalor writ large, with sweeping soundtracks to match. Can such cinematic lightning strike twice?
Eager and unsure, I saw T2 Trainspotting on a Tuesday night in Seattle’s most bafflingly ramshackle, mostly empty theater, sitting in front of a belching, boisterous drunkard. Fitting. I wondered if I’d made the right choice, to not revisit the original before taking in the sequel, and as the opening scenes got underway I was happy to learn that Rent Boy, Sick Boy, Begbie and Spud loomed as large as I remembered, if a bit weathered. We’re immediately served our first helping of nostalgia with a flashback sequence that recalls the Up Series, an ongoing British documentary that tracks the lives of 20 children from different backgrounds. A family tragedy has brought Mark Renton, played by Ewan MacGregor, back home to Edinburgh. One by one, he reconnects with his band of miscreants, each in their own particular rut that seems to trace back to the theft that ended the original film, Mark making off with money from a heroin deal that would have presumably set up their respective futures.
Mark has been living a pleasantly ordinary life in Amsterdam, married and working a job he doesn’t feel terribly qualified to do. Simon, still rocking the bleached tresses as well as he did in the late ‘90s, runs the local tavern, and some seedier side operations involving his gorgeous accomplice and ersatz girlfriend Veronika, who longs to open a brothel. Still terrifying, we find Franco Begbie behind bars, but not for long. Spud, a.ka. Danny Boy is perched precariously between thriving and flailing, losing the right to see his son and watching his life unravel quickly for inane reasons, giving the audience more ammo against Daylight Saving Time.
It doesn’t take long before the gang falls back into their old ways in T2 Trainspotting, scheming in between seething at each other for past slights. During a raucous tussle between Simon and Mark, a nonplussed bar patron simply covers his drink to protect it from flying shards of glass and spittle. It’s business as usual between old friends who have picked up exactly where they left off, in a contentious, confusing brotherhood. Simon quickly cooks up a scheme to exact revenge on Mark, roping in Veronika and Begbie, but not before a duplicitous rebonding session. The lads slip into a cocaine-fueled football reverie while Veronika, the Placid Yé-Yé Dream Madam looks on, half bored, half amused. Simon confides that she finds his place a sty and Mark counters “it’s not a mess, it’s just masculine.” The same could be said of their strained but indelible friendship, and the bruising hijinks that comprise the last third of the film.
Danny Boyle’s flashbacks are mostly unobtrusive, clips of the original film serving as memories that play out just as they do in real life, cropping up unbidden, leaving us agape at what we’ve survived. Nothing here matches the harrowing imagery of the first film; either their antics have mellowed or my sensibilities have dulled. Boyle’s special effects are not quite as homespun as Michel Gondry’s cellophane clouds and toilet roll towns but they’re endearingly real, and best when they’re low-fi. Spud’s shadow looming over him on a wall was particularly haunting. Ewan Bremner’s Spud is beautifully expressive, a Wallace and Gromit character come to vivid life in yellow bug-eyed shades and a fuzzy mohair jumper. His grimaces and his grins shattered me in equal measure, a through line of pulsing emotion from the unexpected hero.
Some of T2 Trainspotting‘s effects feel dated, like a time capsule of mid-nineties MTV, but for this particular film, it’s somewhat comforting. Text that hovers around the characters intermittently seemed like an assist to the audience, helping to decipher Scottish brogues, but by the end, it’s revealed to be a nod to the importance of storytelling, of capturing the past for posterity. With all the grit and flash, it’s easy to forget that this film has literary roots, but then someone bursts into a rant or song so absurdly lyrical that there is a whiff of that shared Disney DNA, twisted but masterful.
The galling truth of T2 Trainspotting is that for better or worse, youth is ephemeral. The verve and the violence of growing up eventually settle into habits, patterns, relative order, and that’s if we’re lucky. There are friends that serve as portals back to this time, and keeping them in our lives often proves difficult, but necessary. They know where the bodies are buried. Likewise, films crystallize time, readily accessible memory banks. Danny Boyle described the process of returning to the world of Trainspotting and the trap of reveling in nostalgia on the Nerdist podcast, saying “it has to be the same, and it has to be different,” and as Renton reels off the updated “Choose life” manifesto, we get just that.
SEE IT! A friend asked, “can T2 Trainspotting possibly live up to the original?” No, I answered and I think that’s the point. There are moments of transcendence, a handful of laughs and battle-worn heartstrings were tugged.