Tuesday, 28 February 2017

"You're an addict. So be addicted, just be addicted to something else. Choose the ones you love. Choose your future. Choose life."

"Hello Mark," says Jonny Lee Miller's Simon 'Sick Boy' Williamson to Ewan McGregor's Renton near the start of T2 Trainspotting. "So what have you been up to... for twenty years?" It is a question that for a long time felt like it would never get an answer. Danny Boyle's era-defining 1996 adaptation of Irvine Welsh's 1993 novel became the movie avatar of Cool Britannia, a cultural movement born out of the ashes and anger of a Thatcher government, hopped up on the sweaty, squalid optimism of dance culture. Yet a middling follow-up novel (Porno), well documented director and star complications, and the fear of botching up a beloved original have kept it from multiplexes. Until now.

In a disjointed start, we learn their fates. Two decades on Renton has swapped running from shop security guards to running on treadmills, yet he can't outrun the treachery of his past. A health scare – and worse – drag him back home to a Leith of steep decline and slow regeneration. Sick Boy is running an extortion business filming the well-off with his prostitute and business partner Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova). Spud (Ewen Bremner) is still a junkie with the soul of a poet and now estranged from his wife (Shirley Henderson) and son. And then there is Begbie (Robert Carlyle), locked up inside but with a stomach churning way of getting out of prison, before revisiting his wife and son (who in a stroke of genius is doing a degree in hotel management) while still holding a grudge against Renton.

How this all builds and plays out won't be spoiled here. McGregor and Miller play the shifting dynamics between friends well – especially one who double crossed the other – and their relationship is the driving engine of the story. Their mutual attraction to Veronika also adds intrigue and Nedyalkova makes her skimpy role seem rounded and likeable. Best of all though is Carlyle's Begbie, still a terrifying hardman – he is arguably cinema's greatest C-bomber – but especially in later scenes finds vulnerabilities that make you genuinely feel for him. Bremner's Spud is perhaps the least served – bizarrely he becomes the group's stenographer but isn't given much more to round out his likeable idiot routine.

Pointedly, during Renton's updating of his Choose Life monologue, he utters "Choose watching history repeat itself". It is a mantra that pervades T2 Trainspotting. If the film is like any sequel it is like Back To The Future Part II (1989), using the second film to investigate the first, through flashback, music and subtle nods. If the first film is really about the joy of being young – the hedonism, the mistakes, the camaraderie – T2 Trainspotting is about the disappointments of growing old – the limitations, the regrets, the need for reconnection. The shared past of these friends is inextricably intertwined in their present and this is where the poignancy of the film lives. Bravely Boyle has made a mostly sombre film about how fortysomething lives work out and it is well observed and well acted. But is this what you want from a Trainspotting film?

For 20 years, T2 Trainspotting was the elephant in the room, the madman laughing in the corner – the gang perhaps mindful of Sick Boy's dictum: "You've got it, and then you lose it, and it's gone forever." But Boyle, for one, has never lost it, and every frame of this film means something to him, and those who were there the first time. Dizzyingly meta, maddeningly broad, then oddly moving, T2 takes some getting your head round, even for the faithful. Indeed, new viewers may wonder what has been slipped in their drinks.

There is a ten-minute section in the middle, where Renton and Sick Boy have to improvise a song about The Battle Of The Boyne in a pro Protestant club followed by a tribute to George Best scored to John Barry's 007 theme, that captures some of the old zest and energy. There is also a fantastic split screen scene in a toilet cubicle. Stylistically Boyle still trades in the original's mixture of hard-nosed realism and flights of fantasy.

Once more, Boyle's direction is the star here. Frenetic with verbs and spiky with life, the film fizzes along to a fantastic soundtrack of new friends (Young Fathers) and remixed favourites (Born Slippy). But it is also slightly diffuse – without Renton's acid voiceover, the narrative loses that monomaniacal focus, swapping the purity of the original high for a cocktail of different uppers and downers.

Trainspotting was never about the drugs, or the money. It was about youth, about escape. Twenty years on, with middle age encroaching and all hopes of escape long evaporated, T2 isn't about the drugs, or the money either. It is about chasing the old highs, realising you can't reach them and then, if you are lucky, finding new ones.

Wiser, sadder but very much alive and kicking, T2 Trainspotting is a film that knows you can't compete with the ghosts of the past. But at least you can dance with them.

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