One early moment in Danny Boyle’s bittersweet Trainspotting sequel T2 encapsulates everything that follows, good and bad. Returning to the Edinburgh semi he abandoned two decades ago – mother gone, father going – Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor) heads upstairs to his old bedroom and starts rifling through his vinyl collection. Easing an LP from its sleeve – Boyle’s careful handling of pop culture already in evidence – he cues one unmistakable picosecond of “Lust for Life” before pulling the needle away. Music. Memories. Too much. Can you ever truly go home? And if so, what do you do with yourself once you’re back?
So yes, they’ve got the band back together again – and remember that the first film exploded into that post-Four Weddings, pre-Full Monty interlude when British cinema seemed like a new rock ‘n’ roll. We now rejoin Renton on tour, leaving a wife behind in Amsterdam to visit the pals he fleeced way back when: Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller), running his auntie’s rundown pub and, more lucratively, a blackmail scam; Begbie (Robert Carlyle) busting out of prison, as furious as ever; and poor, lovable, surely doomed Spud (Ewen Bremner), helplessly dependent on the heroin everybody else has left behind.
Aligning the actors’ schedules was a logistical feat, but T2’s trouble is narrative: nobody really knows what to do with them. One long-mooted idea was to shoot Irvine Welsh’s Porno, Trainspotting’s scabrous literary sequel, which would surely have been more challenging to adapt (and watch), but would have handed Boyle a backbone the new film doesn’t have. Instead, he gets a Hodgepodge: scraps of Porno and offcuts of Trainspotting, assembled by writer John Hodge into a low-stakes caper about the boys’ attempts to open a sauna.
Unusually hesitant, Boyle casts around, applying Snapchat filters here, would-be choice indie cuts there, trying to make either the comedy or drama resonate as it once did. Yet the film continually ambles past pressing themes (gentrification, Scottish nationalism), opening promising plot doors it promptly slams shut again, offering barely a glimpse of those (female) characters who might have provided fresh perspectives on these four wee lads. It’s a very middle-aged endeavour, forever entering a room only to forget why it’s there.
Those passages that do work find Hodge digging his heels in and setting these characters to interrogate the actions of their younger, venal selves; there’s obvious poignancy in the contrast between the fresh-faced junkies of yore and their regretful latter-day incarnations. Yet when Bremner catches a glimpse of the young McGregor haring down Princes Street, it serves only as a chastening reminder of how urgent the original was, and how aimless and torpid the new movie feels.
Only belatedly do you sense everyone moving in the same direction, but what T2 finally commits to is replaying the hits at a different speed: cue a gloomier Choose Life monologue, an extended toilet scene, Renton tumbling over the bonnet of a car from behind. In such moments, the generally forward-thinking Boyle retreats into that nostalgic fan service corporate entertainments like Jurassic World now trade in – hence T2’s ending, striving vainly to make a step backwards seem celebratory in some way.
If the first Trainspotting could be read in hindsight as a scrappy social mobility fable, indicative of the Blair years ahead, T2 finds everybody on screen muddling through in reduced circumstances, which may itself be a sign of the times. Either way, Boyle’s usual pep and vitality – that lust for life that’s previously yanked us past all manner of script problems and existential crises – looks to have waned here: T2 sent me out into a cold night feeling awfully old and sad. Aren’t Januarys bleak enough already?
T2: Trainspotting is now showing in cinemas nationwide.