(SPOILERS) It’s easy to understand Danny Boyle’s urge to revisit Trainspotting. After all, even given the Oscar garlands for Slumdog Millionaire, he’s probably naggingly aware that it’s where his career peaked creatively. Which isn’t to say he shouldn’t still have known better. How often does good come from returning to old stomping grounds, let alone zeitgeist-defining pictures? Does anyone remember Texasville? If he’d gone back to Trainspotting 10 years on, it would likely have seemed as unnecessary and dismissible as a More American Graffiti or Staying Alive, particularly given the Irvine Welsh sequel novel (Porno) no one was really very fussed by. But having two decades pass, due to the way things have panned out, rather than through planning, T2 Trainspotting has a lure built both into its characters and audience, and in a very different way to reuniting with (say) Indiana Jones after a similar lapse of time: nostalgia.
I’m not one to usually fall for that ploy, not being much of a sentimentalist, but even I recognise how culturally charged the picture was, for better or worse (it had been packaged as such out of the gate, even if its road to the screen showed no such confidence in ultimate success): because it’s a youth film, if you were of a certain age when it was released it carried a certain weight and personality that even another of that era, as defining as it was – but purely in movie terms – lacked (Pulp Fiction). What it also shares with Pulp Fiction, though, is that it’s reception wasn’t a flash in the pan; it boasts justified longevity. Much as I rate Boyle’s predecessor, Shallow Grave – and, in some ways, I’d argue it’s superior: narratively tighter and as relevant to its era while cloaked in genre regalia – Trainspotting casts a much, much longer shadow for immediately obvious reasons. It’s still fresh, vital, awake, very much inhabiting the kind of terrain A Clockwork Orange did two and a half decades earlier, and showing it doesn’t necessarily need a super-young director (Boyle was knocking 40) to spark off the joys and perils of youth.
A Clockwork Orange shares several traits with Trainspotting that, because they’re done so well, make it all look so easy. But, if they were, they’d be done every time. Besides the trappings – that of couture and style, be it bowlers and make-up or heroin chic – the tales are narrated by a charmingly reprehensible anti-hero (this they share with Scorsese’s Goodfellas, and Begbie’s unhinged violence owes a huge debt to that film’s Joe Pesci). Indeed, the confidential, casual, informative relationship the narrator has with the viewer of these pictures is key to their success, even beyond somersaulting visuals and striking soundtracks. And it’s very notable that neither Malcolm McDowell or Ewan McGregor (or Ray Liotta for that matter) ever had a role as good again (before seeing it, I’d have argued that, if T2 didn’t use that device, even without the same propelling energy, it would be hard to consider it of the same stock).
In McGregor’s case, one has to only select his third Danny Boyle collaboration, A Life Less Ordinary (you’d forgotten it? Join the club) to identify where it all went wrong. On the surface, everything that was in their previous two pictures is present and correct – an exuberant, pop sensibility, a hip soundtrack, a winning stylistic confidence – but tonally and narratively it’s entirely at variance. And crucially, McGregor plays a likeable sap. In Shallow Grave (where he’s an entirely unsympathetic character) and Trainspotting, the actor’s feckless charm is used to provide an “in” to his protagonists’ less savoury qualities, and it’s this underling tension that is key to his early rise to fame. It’s something that’s been almost entirely absent from later roles, and (in my opinion) a key to why his stardom has waned to a tepid permanence.
After all, Mark Renton’s a character who, aside from being a no-good junky, directly instigates the chain of events that lead to poor Tommy’s demise (he not only steals that sex video, but also provides him his first hit), steals from his parents, his friends (no matter how convincing he is in justifying his actions), and whose response to the discovery of a dead baby is to cook up. As he says at the end, “The truth is, I’m a bad person, but I’m going to change” (albeit, it is framed with sarcasm: “I’m going to be just like you” as if we are truly any better, a debilitating drug habit aside). And we don’t really believe him. After all, when Renton gave up drugs, he filled the void with a plunge into the realm of rampant capitalism (the picture’s only explicit reference to Welsh’s original timeframe is Thatcher’s “There was certainly no such thing as society”), suggesting whatever is corrupted, gnawing at Renton’s soul will take some fixing. He has a conscience, undoubtedly, but not an insurmountably troubled one.
Renton: So, we all get old, and we canna hack it anymore, and that’s it?
Sick Boy: Yeah.
Renton: That’s your theory?
Sick Boy: Yeah.
The above exchange is interesting, as Boyle is almost daring himself with T2 not to fall into step Trainspotting mocked as sadly inevitable. And, even if T2 had been a masterpiece, it’s still a picture that evidences those signs of age and decay. One might say that at least McGregor has carried on making varied movies. Most of his cohorts, Bremner honourably excepted, but then he was never a standard lead, have succumbed to the safety of long-running US series (Johnny Lee Miller, Kevin McKidd, Robert Carlyle), while Boyle’s newly-crowned establishment colours found him flaunting Olympics obeisance which, besides an NHS shout out, saw him accused of promulgating imagery in supplication to the damned tentacular Illuminati.
Sick Boy: The Name of the Rose is merely a blip on an otherwise uninterrupted downward trajectory.
Renton: Well, what about The Untouchables?
Sick Boy: I don’t rate that at all.
Regarding Sick Boy’s Connery obsession, I have to disagree with him on a number of counts, such as using box office as proof that his last official Bond stank up the place (“Goldfinger’s better than Dr No, both of them are a lot better than Diamonds are Forever”); if that were so, his cited Thunderball would be a masterpiece (Diamonds are Forever is, of course, the best Connery Bond). As for his dismissal of The Untouchables, I can only assume he also loathed The Last Crusade, since Connery did indeed undergo something of a minor career renaissance at that time. His Connery impression is peerless, however (“Do you shee the beesht ? Have you got in your shights?”), so I forgive him.
The last third of Trainspotting sort-of coasts on the sheer incident-packed delirium of the first hour. John Hodge’s restructuring of Welsh seems deceptively straightforward but is in fact dazzlingly detailed and complex, packing so much into 90 minutes that it’s an object lesson how screenwriting can be, rather than often is. Renton quits smack in the first five minutes and doesn’t take it up again for another 30, during which we experience such marvels as the Worst Toilet in Scotland, Spud attending a job interview and shitting the bed, antics with Kelly McDonald that would get Renton put on a register, and his famous tirade about his home country (“It’s shite being Scottish!”)
The middle section has the dead baby (“So I cooked up and she got a hit, but only after me”), and the masterful OD sequence (Perfect Day used to sublime effect, and Peter Mullan’s assured cameo as Mother Superior/Swanney). I have to admit, the cold turkey sequence, as feted as it is, doesn’t really have the punch claimed of it; it’s a little too structured and devised in its horror (though McGregor’s performance is entirely dedicated).
But then we reach the final act, with Renton selling real estate, putting up with Begbie, and then Sick Boy (“I can’t believe you did that” When the latter sells his TV) and then getting in on a deal to sell some narratively-convenient (and so lacking the same kind of authenticity seen hitherto) skag. It works, much of it down to the edgy fury Carlyle brings to Begbie, and Renton’s final escape, with the sad Spud looking on, to an unknown but hopeful future overseen by Underworld’s Born Slippy, suggests the false dawns of Britpop and Blairism, the Cool Britannia of which Boyle in his way was a part; the pisstake of Renton’s first arrival in London, to the accompaniment of Ice MC, is a far more fitting summary of the vacuous, queasy fall from grace to come.
Boyle’s technical mastery has never been in doubt, but it’s been employed in the aid of increasingly less-assured material since, be it his broken-backed third acts as delivered by Alex Garland (The Beach – which fractured the McGregor honeymoon – 28 Days Later and Sunshine), or exercises in narrative (127 Hours, Steve Jobs), or simply technique (Trance). He needs to find scripts again that have teeth. But he probably can’t. Because he’s old and canna hack it any more.
Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.