T2 Trainspotting, the sequel to the 1996 cult classic Trainspotting — a film that follows a group of junkies in mid-‘90s Scotland — is a call to arms of nostalgia and self-reflection. It’s a story of dependence, friendship, fear, regret and ultimately redemption, peeling back the layers of an unscrupulous past to face the future.
Trainspotting, which was based on a novel by Irvine Welsh, wasn’t meant to romanticize narcotic addiction and its reckless lifestyle, and the sequel proves that. Instead, it is an earnest depiction of drugs, social class and the human condition, of being young, broke and broken — a snapshot that few directors have pulled off successfully, especially with a sequel. And 20 years later? Unheard of.
But somehow, T2 Trainspotting, which debuted in theaters on March 17, did it with a deftness that only director Danny Boyle and main actors Ewan McGregor, Jonny Lee Miller, Ewen Bremner and Robert Carlyle could do.
With underlying motifs like masculinity, maturity and forgiveness, and scenes that lurch from heartbreaking to side-splitting, T2 Trainspotting chronicles main character Mark Renton (McGregor) as he learns the hard way that you can’t run from your past forever. Renton returns home after escaping 20 years prior and stealing £12,000 from his opiate-addled antihero friends. The plot plays on a feeling that most people can relate to: coming back to a familiar place and realizing how much has changed, juxtaposed with the bitter reality that some things never really do.
But why now? Why would Danny Boyle run the risk of ruining a classic by directing a sequel nearly two decades after the original?
“We tried ten years ago when there was an obvious prompt because Irvine Welsh published a book, Porno, which was a ten-years-later sequel to his original novel, and so we had a go at it, and it was not very good,” admits the Oscar-winning filmmaker. “Obviously there’s an onus on you when you return to something with the impact that the first film had; if you’re going to update it, you’ve got to have a reason. And it didn’t feel like there was a reason… Also the actors didn’t look any different. I’m sure they would have felt different, but they didn’t look any different ten years ago.”
Boyle says what ultimately emerged was a much more personal reason to finally make the film: the passage of time.
“The other film is obviously a great celebration of a certain period of your life through the most extreme prism you can imagine, these junkies in Edinburgh, and then obviously the update is when they’re 46 and they’re f**ked,” he explains.
In a time and culture that is strikingly different, how did he introduce the right amount of nuance and nostalgia?
The answer is simple: with allusions to scenes, characters and quotes from the original; familiar gritty, often dreamlike camera work and a supporting cast that has enough loyalty and talent to dexterously delve into the same characters two decades later.
T2 nods to its predecessor in brilliantly subtle ways, but it’s not so esoteric that someone introduced to it for the first time wouldn’t understand.
Though it’s obvious the cast is no longer in their 20s, the film is just as much about the growth and progression of society as it is of its characters. After all, Trainspotting is nothing if not an incisive social and ethical commentary.
“Age is cruel, and you don’t realize that until you get to this point in your life,” says Bremner, who plays Renton’s friend Spud. “In the first film, we were full of exuberance and potency, and we thought we were invincible. When Danny asked us to come back together and find out who these guys were after 20 years, we had an opportunity that is unparalleled, that never comes along for actors, to think of a character 20 years later and to run with it.”
McGregor says reuniting with the cast “felt like coming home.”
Along with the cast, plot and cinematography, the soundtrack of the original film was seminal. Because it was lauded for the way it embodied the era, and the subculture that existed within it, Boyle admits there were a lot of expectations to create an equally evocative score for the sequel.
“We were very lucky on the first film because obviously there was a huge variety of choices and it was a great time,” he says of UK music in the ‘90s.
However, he says it was important to find the “heartbeat” of the film, which he found in the Underworld album, Dubnobasswithmyheadman.
“I remember I said to John and Andrew, the screenwriter and the producer, that this would be the heartbeat of the film,” he recalls. “I remember them being a bit alarmed about that because they thought it was going to be just plastered with Underworld music, which was very heavy. And I said, ‘No, but it is the rhythm that will make the film’s tone.’”
According to Boyle, every good film needs a similar “heartbeat.”
“You’re always looking for that on a film… you don’t always find it, but you find some way in
the musical choice that represents the film,” he says. “Coming to do the new one, you want to try
and find that equivalent heartbeat, and we found this band, Young Fathers, who come from the same estates around Edinburgh that Irvine Welsh came from and where his stories are based from 25 years ago… and yet their stuff just fits in the film, so we used three or four of their tracks.”
He also says the music in T2 is not unlike the plot, in that it is a reflection of the first film. The sequel remixes and re-imagines songs from the original soundtrack.
“It’s the heartbeat of the new film that sustains you most, and that was this relationship with Young Fathers,” Boyle elaborates.
Boyle admits he doesn’t have all the answers. He says there’s no definitive takeaway from the film. Neither the original nor the sequel has a moral, though the film encourages the audience to examine the characters’ tumult and transition and reflect on their own experiences.
“The movie’s really a lot about masculinity,” says Miller, who plays Renton’s right-hand man, Sick Boy. “There’s that confidence and that fearlessness which permeates the first movie and it’s really summed up in the voiceover, especially in the end speech there: This is what I’m going to do, this is who I am, this is who I’m going to be, and it’s directed at the audience.”
Sick Boy says it best in a particularly poignant scene where he and Renton are reflecting on the trials and tribulations of yesteryear: “You’re just a tourist in your own youth.”
“I think the second film really reflects that very well about your attitude; your confidence maybe disappears a little bit. It’s not your confidence, it’s your brash attitude to life. You don’t feel invincible anymore, your mortality is more evident to you perhaps, either subconsciously or consciously. You’re either aware of that or you’re not,” he continues.
Though audiences may argue this film is more visceral, and depends less on visual stimulation and shock value and more on deep-seated reflection, Boyle says he prefers to leave it to viewer interpretation.
“I don’t think we make movies because we’re trying to make a message,” he says. “You hope people recognize it as honest, really. Whatever the circumstances that you’re portraying, however extreme the story… you certainly find this working with good actors, they won’t let you do anything that feels dishonest.”