The cultural zeitgeist of Cool Britannia in the mid-90s was summed up by a drug-fueled romp through Edinburgh with a killer soundtrack and a gang with a Generation X attitude. Gone are the days of nihilistic living to excess, unironic catchphrases, and the acid house scene, replaced by a general apathy, tongue-in-cheek devotion, and only smatterings of hope peering through a tower of promised and lost potential.
T2 Trainspotting should not, cannot, and does not try to emulate what made the original so iconic. Like another great sequel, Before Sunset, it is in conversation with what came before, what happened in between, and where we are now. Some people never change – Begbie is still a nutjob, Spud is still on heroin – while others have tried to distance themselves from their youth.
Ewan McGregor’s Mark Renton got out at the end of Trainspotting with hopes of a fresh start, stealing money from his friends on the way. He shows up back in Edinburgh, fresh faced and willing to engage with the past by visiting his old friends Simon “Sick Boy” Williamson and Daniel “Spud” Murphy. Francis “Franco” Begbie is safely behind bars, where he is every part the animal he always was, dropping c-bombs like it’s nobody’s business. Robert Carlyle is still an intimidating lunatic, prowling with menace and able to make a villain truly loathsome.
Spud is at a loss. His life is cyclically letting him down. Simon has a business partner in his ‘girlfriend’ Vanessa, hoping to make money through blackmail and starting a brothel. Vanessa and Spud are the heart and hope of the movie. Although neither of them lead or have led vice-free lives, their intentions are always better than those they surround themselves with. Their determination is often met with a brick wall or contrary voices, but it is unshakable. Mark proved there is a way out the first time around, and it is tough not to empathise with the two characters who really deserve better.
Its emotional drive is what justifies T2’s existence. There are nods to the original, but they add a heartbreaking nostalgia that is central to the characters’ motivations. Mark’s sadness comes from choices they made, while Simon’s refusal to acknowledge what came before leads him from one dangerous decision to another. Conversations about nostalgia will be fairly meta for any audience old enough to have seen Trainspotting when it was released in the 90s, but lots of critically acclaimed arthouse cinema is currently interested in the passage of time in general and T2 fits in with that group well. It is visceral and graphic when it wants to be, but it will be far more remembered for how touching it is.
Not to say it is missing fun or laughs, or even the danger of the original. It is hard to shock or make audiences truly uncomfortable in 2017, but one particularly tense scene in a pub involving a singalong is both hilarious because of its nature and hilarious in the way one laughs when nervous. Watching T2 in Glasgow makes this scene terrifying and relatable, but handled with such humour it is impossible not to howl with laughter.
Remarkably, T2 is an absolute success. The magic space the original occupies in the culture of that time is not something that can be manufactured, but this sequel does a great job of fitting into the mood of 2017. We hope for and expect better, we do the same things repeatedly and expect different results, we lose ourselves in the past, we feel attacked by the sociopolitical environment, and we always forget – choose life.