(SPOILERS) “First there was an opportunity. And then there was a betrayal.” The story of making of The Beach? I had been of the view that Danny Boyle was dicing with artistic death by revisiting past glories, particularly given Trainspotting’s dismissal of those who inevitably get old, past it and deteriorate, but this – and maybe it is just that nostalgia talking, an active conversation the picture cannily embraces and foregrounds, almost metatextually so – is his best picture since those glory days. He can’t resist overdoing the directorial dazzle at times, and screenwriter John Hodge’s conceits don’t always come off, but Boyle’s reunion with Ewan McGregor has resulted in a tale that breaks new terrain on its characters and actively picks up themes that had been left open-ended. T2 Trainspotting, against the odds, more than justifies the decision to reopen the book on this quartet and how they haven’t grown.
I was initially disappointed to realise there would be no ongoing narration, since Renton’s conversational insights are such a core facet of the original. There’s a notable, informative exception: the very funny scam he and Sick Boy (I’m going to call him Sick Boy rather than Simon here, and Renton rather than Mark, and Begbie rather than Franco, and Spud rather than Daniel, as it’s just plain easier; even if it rather goes against the picture’s intent of character exploration, such a choice is fully in keeping with its two-edged nostalgic streak) pull at the Orange Order event. That, and the reprise of “Choose Life”, which is explained rather than narrated (over-explained? Some might rather come away feeling that Boyle has over-ed everything here).
Those aside, this is very much a straight story punctuated with Boyle’s pop sensibility, whereas the original wore its jagged edges with pride, fashioning a uniquely lyrical pattern. As such, I can see how a narration wouldn’t fit here. Renton has no vantage point from which to explain his place. He’s lost, lost in a reverie for the past when he’s not mulling his not that untypical mid-40s present – divorced, conscious of his mortality, imminently to lose his job – and that past extends way back, as far as childhood exploits, the wonders of George Best, and as recently as the final shot of Trainspotting.
While Boyle possibly over-quotes himself, it’s hard not to conclude that Hodge’s screenplay almost entirely justifies such a decision. I’ve seen the re-contextualising of the original compared to Back to the Future Part II, which is apt in some respects; while that picture made the narrative repeats wholly essential to the plot, Robert Zemeckis stopped and indulged nostalgia for the crowd-pleasing highpoints of an original only four years old. This is a picture where all Renton’s chickens come home to roost, so dealing with the past in a way Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright’s similarly-themed The World’s End entirely failed. There’s a great scene in which Mark and Sick Boy shout over each other while the latter’s not-quite girlfriend Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova) resorts to speaking Bulgarian, and her commentary on the oblivious pair entirely sums up the movie: “You’re living in the past”.
Aren’t Boyle and Hodge doing likewise, through their creations, tourists in their own creative peak? Spud seeing (the opening) scenes from the original; Renton passing by Take Two of the Worst Toilet in Scotland (before, in possibly the standout scene for crackerjack comic timing and tension, encountering Begbie on the other side of a cubicle); Renton rolling off the bonnet of a car, then fixing the driver with that wild-eyed, lovin’ it grin; the strains of Lust to Life spluttering, threatening to kick into gear courtesy of The Prodigy’s remix; the inevitable heroin fix; the “Choose life” conversation; returning to mourn Tommy at the very spot they spurned his clean-living intentions, as Renton and Sick Boy exchange sharp rebukes over their capital crimes.
Renton, despite having made a clean break, has heart problems – he never did get clean inside, Hodge is telling us – and none of them have made successes of their lives. Spud is still a junkie, Sick Boy still a sleazy, sick boy-man, user of others and coke, Begbie still a complete fucking psycho. And Renton, still self-justifying his less-than-honourable behaviour. Only Diane, in a too-brief cameo from Kelly McDonald, has moved onwards and upwards, becoming a lawyer (a good and noble thing? It is here anyway, because it is at least something tangible). Regardless, she holds forth one of the slyest observations, given their very illegal first coupling, telling Renton that that Veronika is “too young for you”.
The picture wisely steers clear of trenchant political positions or commentary, as these characters are far too self-involved for anything approaching bona fide social consciences; about as far as Boyle is prepared to go is the “Choose Life” redux, which is far more about social devolution 2.0 – or simply the out of touch older generation – more about a general antipathy than any kind of incisive invective (even if the 9/11 reference skirts close to fake news/conspiracy debunking).
The Veronika character, on the one hand, is devised as a plot motor, to reveal aspects of our “heroes”, rather than translating as a rounded character in her own right (what do we really know about her by the end?) But, on the other, she’s something of a modern take on the femme fatale, there to manipulate them into arriving at the outcome she wants, and sitting pretty while they’re left with egg on their faces. Nedyalkova certainly seizes the role and every scene, quietly making space for herself against the showier roles of her fellow actors.
She’s there to bring Renton and Sick Boy back into each other’s arms and is so successful, they may well spend another 20 years failing to do anything other than love/hate each other (the “Why don’t you just fuck each other” line is a bit on the nose, mainly because it’s been the highlighted subtext of pretty much every bromance in recent memory, but it still succeeds in context). And she’s there to untap Spud’s cork of authorial ability. That’s probably worth £100k of EU funding.
Spud’s writing is a lovely touch: I’ve assumed Renton is effectively a stand-in for Welsh himself (and, of course, Ewen Bremner played Renton on stage before McGregor put a pretty face to the part), but transposing him to Spud, an idiot bard in the making, is inspired; the comic relief of the original becomes the heart of the sequel. And Bremner shows he’s the great unsung master performer of these movies, his pile of gangling limbs and strangulated delivery giving way to soulful insights that retain that same essence of character, such that you can see how he nearly tames the Begbie beast into a bliss of past exploits remembered.
The follow-on from this, that Begbie is even awarded a momentary attempt to locate humanity in his anti-paternal relationship, left me wondering if that decision might have been a mistake, since you should never soften a psychopath (so too, it might have offered a finality, if that toilet had permanently pulverised his skull; if there wasn’t at least one eye on further chapters, I suspect such a thing would have come to pass).
The menace of marauding Begbie, a relentless T-1000 on the trail of Mark Renton (appropriate for the title, then), gives the picture its own distinctive rhythm and inner tension, and if feels right that the threat doesn’t come from an outsider; it’s this group that destroyed their own lives, rather than it being anyone else’s fault. Indeed, during the closing stages, along with a couple of visual nods to Blade Runner (of all things), I was put in mind of the deranged crescendo of Boyle’s debut, Shallow Grave (prior to that, there’s even a spade, or two, so they can dig a pit, or two, although that scene just sort of shows up there for no good reason, a narrative cul-de-sac). I have to admit, though, with those childhood flashbacks, that I’d never even considered Begbie was supposed to be a contemporary of the other lads; the vague acknowledgment of this, by noting he’d been kept back in class, elicited simply a “What, for 10 years?” (not unlike attempting to believe there’s only seven years between Ray Liotta and Joe Pesci in Goodfellas).
Carlyle is a solid as you’d expect, able to effortlessly tap Begbie’s endless well of rage, although having him also play Begbie Sr is a bit too cute, and his exploits with Viagra appear to have wandered in from a Judd Apatow joint. Miller, Sick Boy’s bleach job receding and in demeanour simply sour where before he was winningly pithy, is toxically magnetic and displays such easy chemistry with McGregor, you hope they do other things together.
Yes, McGregor. Whose film this is. Finally, after decades of anaemic, inoffensive appearances – in the region of 50 movie roles – he gets to tear into a vital character. It’s no wonder he’s identified himself so profusely with Renton in interviews, as it feels as if, in career terms, he has finally chosen life. Hopefully he and Boyle will work again before too long, as three out of four is pretty good evidence of alchemy.
Like I say, not all of T2 works – there are times when Boyle becomes too diverted by his own visual trickery, such as the cartoon heads stuck on footage from the original, or an obvious gag like Raging Spud (although, Anthony Dod Mantle’s skills as a cinematographer are the perfect complement to this kind of material; let him never darken the doors of a Ron Howard extravaganza again). And there’s the fact that the lean, mean original has suffered middle-aged spread in its running time (although, honestly, I barely noticed, so just what am I complaining about here?) And the get-rich scheming echoes the least resonant aspect of the original (that is, when these films are veering into “movie” plots, rather than striking their beats from experiences).
But generally, the balance struck in both embracing and rejecting nostalgia, in the name of exploring its allure to a generation for whom there is now only self-referencing, is near-perfectly achieved. And there are some sharp conceits, such as the undercutting of the (trailer: that Wolf Alice track is perfection) moment where Renton saves Spud with the latter’s complete lack of appreciation, or Sick Boy’s coke-addled revenge scheme singularly failing off a cliff. And then there’s the lovely moment between Renton and dad James Cosmo: a simple hug at the top of the stairs. And Lust for Life, finally charged up, finally leaping into life, finally, at the end. Maybe there is still hope.
T2 Trainspotting has a chance to find its own level of audience attachment in a way the rapturously-received original didn’t (which is not to say it didn’t fully deserve its success, but I remember going to see it on its first day, and its status was a fait accompli); the cautious, not entirely-convinced response makes its long-term appeal less assured, but also more intriguing. After all, you can’t really have a zeitgeist movie for the middle-aged. Can you? So, T3 in 2038? With Begbie in a bath tub, chasing Renton, Spud and Sick Boy down a hill? On heroin? I’ll be there.
Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.