Review: T2 Trainspotting (2017)

Nostalgia is painful. T2 Trainspotting understands this better than any recent hits that mine nostalgia, from Netflix’s Stranger Things to the behemoth of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Instead of paying reference to or recreating the past like these nostalgia pictures do, T2 genuinely captures the wistful remembrance that defines nostalgia. It wisely demonstrates that nostalgia doesn’t rely on whether the past was good or not, merely that the past is past. Nostalgia allows us to idealize that past, relishing the mixture of melancholy and fondness it instills in us. When that idealized past is being a heroin junkie in the sprawl of Edinburgh, you’ve got a wonderful emotional dissonance, which T2 mines for all its worth.

T2 takes the colourful, vibrant junkies of the original film (Renton, Sick Boy, Spud, and Begbie--although Begbie’s not technically a junky) and picks up with them 20 years later. Renton (Ewan McGregor) returns as a divorcee from Amsterdam, finally reconnecting with the best friends he ripped off at the end of Trainspotting. He is off smack, but he’s in a rut and feels lost in the modern world. His friends fare even worse than him. Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller) runs his aunt’s dilapidated pub, dreaming of starting a brothel with his Bulgarian girlfriend, Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova). Spud (Ewen Bremner) is still on heroin, contemplating suicide because he’s out of options. And Begbie (Robert Carlyle) is in prison, as rageful as ever. The plot kicks into motion as Renton reconnects with Sick Boy and Spud, plotting along with them to raise money to transform Sick Boy’s pub into a brothel, while Begbie escapes from prison, intent on revenge.

But the plot isn’t what’s important here. Trainspotting was a young person’s picture, a definitive statement of Generation X. T2 is a film of middle-age. It’s brash, but more about reflection than defiant verve. These are characters adrift. When they were young and impetuous, they had heroin and they had their youth. Now, their youth is gone and heroin is a death sentence, so they’re left with nothing. As they retrace old steps, they’re constantly faced with their past selves and all their poor decisions, broken relationships, and missed opportunities. The film’s kinetic style frames this relationship with the past as a literal engagement between the old film and the new.

Director Danny Boyle isn’t known for standing still--in fact, if he and Tom Cruise were to collaborate on a movie together, the world of cinema might not be able to handle all the running. Here, his filmmaking is even more frenetic than in the previous film. The cutting is quick. Camera angles alternate between canted wide shots and extreme close-ups where the lens distorts the faces of the characters. He mixes in old Super 8 footage of the characters as kids and loves to randomly cut to stock footage of football matches or urban development that underscores the context of the scene. Most cunningly, Boyle uses images of the characters in Trainspotting as ghosts of the past, sharing the screen with their current selves in some moments. It’s here where the film profoundly taps into the wound of nostalgia.

Boyle introduces the conceit in one of the best movie moments of recent years. After scoring some smack in a downtown housing project, Spud exits to the street. We hear the first few chords of Underworld’s “Born Slippy,” which featured prominently in the first film. Spud hears a yell and a pattering of running feet. He looks up and spots a young Renton running down the street followed by Spud’s own past self, following behind. Boyle cuts to a wide shot and young Renton runs by on the left, while old Spud stands watching on the right. We realize Spud’s at a location from the first film. He smiles at the sight of his old friend, but it’s a melancholy smile, as he knows he will never be able to recapture that energy, that “Lust for Life,” if you will. It’s a seamless incorporation of old and new footage and one of the best visualizations of nostalgia I’ve ever seen. It gutted me and put me into a reverie of reflection I haven’t been able to escape.

T2 Trainspotting oftens uses this gimmick. For instance, we see the ghost of Tommy (Michael Shaw) traipsing towards the hills during a return to the highlands. One striking moment late in the film projects an unused scene from the first film on the wall of Spud’s apartment as he narrates the action to Begbie. It involves an old drunkard and the use of the verb “Trainspotting,” forcing Begbie into his only moment of genuine reflection. Not even a monster like him is immune to nostalgia. The characters are aware they’re looking for answers in the past, but they can’t help themselves. The present (as we’ve all become increasingly aware over the past year) is unacceptable. The future looks even more dire. No wonder we turn to our past selves for escape. Renton, Sick Boy, Spud, and Begbie are no different than us.

Only cinema is uniquely equipped to replicate this experience of memory and nostalgia. A photograph or a poem might evoke the feeling, but cinema can replicate the experience. It can place avatars for ourselves alongside ghosts of the past, visualizing how we see our former selves as well as filling us with this longing that makes nostalgia so appealing and dangerous.

For Danny Boyle and company in T2 Trainspotting, nostalgia is an obsession and a tool. It’s the film’s central preoccupation and its main method for bewitching the viewer. It’s a deft trick to make your theme your hook, but Boyle pulls it off. This is an unlikely great film. It’s a distinct film that doesn’t tread thematic or narrative ground, but it’s also so strongly connected to the first film that it might even improve that film in retrospect. The only other film I can think of that captured nostalgia so well is Isao Takahata’s Only Yesterday. Both films have left me reeling into my own memory, coming to terms with the acute pain and longing for a vanished past. T2 and its spell won’t be leaving me soon.

9 out of 10

T2 Trainspotting (2017, UK)

Directed by Danny Boyle; written by John Hodge, based on the novels Porno and Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh; starring Ewan McGregor, Ewen Bremner, Jonny Lee Miller, Anjela Nedyalkova, with Kelly Macdonald, and Robert Carlyle.