Did Trainspotting Really Need An Update?

Photo: Via Youtube
For me, the 1996 film Trainspotting was a truly glorious affair. A dazzling one-off, a sensational stand-alone, a masterpiece. So, 21 years on, did we really need an update?

T2 Trainspotting has been a long time coming. Reasons for this? Who knows, but throw in a well-documented director/star fall-out, the reported wait for the actors to look old enough or even just a wobble over tarnishing the hallowed legacy of the original film. No matter, T2 Trainspotting is here now. So the question is, how does it stand up?

I watched T2 alongside a mixed audience ranging from excited entry-level 18-year-olds to nostalgic 40- and 50-somethings. It was well received, judging by the laughter and the groans (yes, be prepared for some stomach-turning moments), but I came out still musing on whether this film really needed to exist at all.

The brilliance of the first Trainspotting lay in its daring and innovative take on what could have been a grim serving of social realism. Instead, this sorry tale of young urban junkies living in the dark underbelly of '80s Edinburgh was ingeniously shaken up with raw energy, black humour and some impressive visual trickery, all driven by a pounding soundtrack. The film’s frenetic pace was exquisitely balanced by scenes that shocked, saddened or just made you laugh out loud. The film was brave, bold and it moved me.

Not surprisingly, it provoked its fair share of controversy with both Irvine Welsh (writer of the book on which the film is based) and director Danny Boyle accused of glamorising heroin addiction.
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Of course the youthful, good-looking cast (Ewan McGregor and Jonny Lee Miller in particular) added allure and swagger. It’s also true that Trainspotting explicitly exposed the euphoria as well as the pain of hardcore drug use – one of the few films brave enough to have taken this risk on the big screen at the time. But it’s also fair to say that the film didn’t stint on the brutal moments: the death of a neglected baby, the gruesome physical agony of drug withdrawal and Renton’s desperate, sordid swim down that awful toilet, to name but three.

T2 (loosely based on Porno, Welsh’s sequel to Trainspotting) is a catch-up with the same characters –McGregor’s Renton, Miller’s Sick Boy (now known as Simon), Robert Carlyle’s Begbie and Ewen Bremner’s Spud – some 20 years on from their furiously misspent youth.

As expected, themes of reconnection and nostalgia dominate this latest landscape which explains and allows for the frequent flashbacks and nods to the original film. T2 opens as Renton, driven by a personal crisis, returns to Edinburgh to renew and repair relationships with his friends. As he was last seen disappearing to Amsterdam after stealing more than his cut of a £16,000 drug deal, there are clearly a lot of bridges to be built.

He looks up Simon, now in charge of a dingy pub he’s inherited from an aunt. Alongside his landlord duties he is running a seedy extortion racket with his young Bulgarian girlfriend, Veronika (an impressive performance from Anjela Nedyalkova). Renton finds vulnerable loser Spud, also not in a great place. Estranged from his wife and son he’s now back on the smack. Meanwhile, scary and revengeful Begbie is in prison, though not for long, one suspects.

The pace of the film is punchy if not as frenzied as T1 and the plot packs in addiction, blackmail, fraud and some Begbie bloodlust, but leaves enough room for exploration and evaluation of friendship and times now past.

McGregor is a smoothly assured acting presence but his role in this film seems to be mostly to support the other characters. He advises, placates, repents and (when it comes to Begbie) tries to avoid. But does he betray? Well, wait and see.

This is a relentlessly male-driven movie.

McGregor was indisputably the most charismatic star of the first film but he’s overshadowed here. Miller for one gives a fine performance as the bitter, disillusioned Simon, whose uneasy, distrustful relationship with Renton is key to the film’s main storyline.

But it’s Bremner who really stands out. His moving performance as the gentle, fragile Spud unfolds beautifully to be both believable and affecting. However, although Carlyle delivers as the terrifyingly unpredictable Begbie, attempts to reveal a more vulnerable side to his character are unconvincing.

This is a relentlessly male-driven movie. Women, apart from Veronika, are afforded little screen time. Kelly Macdonald returns for all of two minutes as Diane, now a successful lawyer, while the awesome Shirley Henderson is shamefully underused as Spud’s estranged wife.

For those that haven’t seen T1, I wonder what T2 will offer. Sure, the new film does work as an entertaining experience and there are enough references – visual and otherwise – to fill in any gaps. I’m guessing, though, that this outing will be mostly a draw for those who were there first time round.

For some of that number, T2 may well be worth the watch for a catch-up with old friends and as an entertaining carry-on. But, for me – and this is nostalgia talking now – I can only remember the revelatory jolt of a film that was the original. Some things are better left in the past. Trainspotting is one of them.

Read more: Why Trainspotting's Renton Is My Style Icon
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