Poverty, narcotics, no future: the characters from Trainspotting (1996) seemed ill-fated to see Y2K, much less survive into the second decade of the new millennium. Yet here they are, worse for wear (or not), in the sequel, T2 Trainspotting.
The original iteration of the film brought widespread notice to the relatively unknown British director Danny Boyle and his star, Ewan McGregor. They both must be feeling nostalgic, not entirely unlike the characters in the film who look back with fondness laced with melancholy on their hoodlum youth before time foreclosed on many of life’s possibilities.
The story is built around a homecoming. After 20 years in Amsterdam, Mark (McGregor) returns to Edinburgh with the intention of paying at least a few old debts. Mark was the snake in yard back in the day, the ringleader in shoplifting and needle sharing who absconded with the money from the crime he planned with his mates. He saves the life of Spud (Ewen Bremner), still on the dole and hooked on heroin, and establishes a sometimes-contentious rapport with Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller). He doesn’t count on the implacable hostility of Begbie (Robert Carlyle), a convict who escapes from captivity and wants to settle scores his way.
Mark and Sick Boy, along with the latter’s girlfriend, Bulgarian immigrant Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova), begin raising money to open a bordello disguised as a spa, first through crime and then by applying for a small business loan from the European Union. The site for their venture is the broken-down harbor bar Sick Boy inherited. They screen a slickly produced video for the EU committee, complete with Scottish music, footage of dockworkers from a century ago and a tourist board’s sense of history. They use all the correct buzzwords: the spa will be “artisanal” with “locally sourced food” and local art on display; there will be outreach programs to inspire children to “believe yes they can!” It’s all part of “this new wave of regeneration.” The EU swallows the con job. But that’s not how the story ends.
For Mark and Sick Boy, it’s all a gamble in a game where the rules are rigged and the house wins in the end anyway. As Mark explains to Veronika, “human interaction has been reduced to nothing but data,” the social network strung between phones made by harassed Chinese women in sweatshops is a platform for spewing bile and stupidity across the globe. Twenty years ago it was bad enough. Why not smother your pain?
But the spa scam is only a device to keep the story rolling forward. T2 is all about aging and memory and the search for home. Mark returns to the row house where he grew up; mum has died but dad shows him his old room, a time capsule with its locomotive wallpaper and stack of David Bowie and Iggy Pop LPs. Mark and Sick Boy spend countless hours reminiscing, watching old soccer matches on disc like tourists in their own youth. Spud is moved to begin writing his recollections on scraps of paper. Even Begbie, hardest-headed of the lot, admits sadly, “The world changes even if we don’t.”
The bravura filmmaking on display in the original Trainspotting is reprised in T2 as Boyle cuts away to memories, freezes frames and edits with great skill a cinematic artifact as opposed to the ostensibly transparent window to reality of Hollywood movies. He cleverly employs attractive fonts for subtitles when the rude Celtic poetry of some characters becomes indecipherable to non-Scottish ears. T2 is a rarity: a sequel better than the original with characters endowed with greater gravity by the passage of time. T3? In 20 more years, maybe Mark will be prime minister.