Attention! Laura Morgan‘s musings on growing old via the medium of T2 Trainspotting will almost certainly contain spoilers
A few years ago, MostlyFilm ran a piece in which a bunch of us listed films we’d changed our minds about. Mine was Gravity, which I disliked when I saw it but swung around on about a week later, after I heard an interview with Alfonso Cuaron in which he explained, entirely convincingly, what the film was for. That was my fastest-ever 180-degree shift, right up until I went to see T2 Trainspotting on its opening night. I came out of the cinema complaining, ate a meal and thought about it a bit, and by next morning had altered my view completely. Here’s why: everything you think is bad and annoying about T2 Trainspotting can be explained away as intentionally that way. The second-worst moment in the film*, which may also be the second-worst moment in my life, is the reimagining of Renton’s Choose Life speech, which Ewan McGregor performs so awkwardly that you have to assume he finds it as excruciating as we do, although I suppose that both Ewan and I had the opportunity to walk out at that point, and neither of us seems to have done so.
Because the point of T2 Trainspotting (I’m sorry about the name, I know that’s annoying too – Danny Boyle says they called it what the characters would have called it) is that you can’t go back. And if you’re making a sequel, 21 years later, in which you make the point that you can’t go back, it pretty much gives you license to do whatever you want. I was worried that it was going to be a terrible film; that, like Blondie singing Maria, it would be so bad that it ruined everything that went before. And it’s not a terrible film! It has some terrible parts, for sure, but what I found, a few hours after seeing it, was that I was delighted to have been able to spend a couple more hours in the company of those guys I used to know, even though we’re all older and less beautiful than we used to be. Every time T2 refers back to the original – and it does, a lot, making no attempt to stand up as a separate piece of work in its own right – it deliberately and competently acknowledges that whatever is going on now is less thrilling than what happened then. Veronika, the only significant new character (because you have to have a hot young thing, and incidentally I think the casting of Shirley Henderson and Kelly Macdonald as underused bit-parters is a genuine misstep), is a cypher who only really exists to describe what’s happening to the boys (does she have hopes, dreams, likes, dislikes? We never find out). The function of her character is to tell us what’s happening, never more eloquently than in the scene where she tells Renton and Sickboy (in Bulgarian) that their mutual adoring nostalgia is pissing her off. And it probably pisses us off too (it did me), but they’re being self-indulgent and referential and egotistical and it’s a bit embarrassing, and we asked for it by being there in the first place. What did we expect?
Last week the Guardian published a review by Stuart Jeffries in which he imagined a better, more angry and relevant version of the Choose Life speech. And his version is clever and exciting and a million times more incisive and inspiring than what 46-year-old Renton actually says, but isn’t that the point? Jeffries says “Trainspotting is too lost in its past to speak eloquently to our present”, as though that’s a bad thing, when really what T2 tells us, quietly and undeniably, is that we aren’t young and gorgeous any more, we don’t have the same ideals we once did, we might once have had a vision of a perfect future, but things are different now. I was eighteen when I read Trainspotting, nineteen when I saw the movie, and back then both Renton and I had the world at our feet. These days both of us have fallen short of our fiercely imagined ideals (though Ewan is a bit too gorgeous to be convincing: the actual Renton would definitely be fat by now), but we both remember a time when we were wild and angry and anything was possible, and is it really that bad to look back and feel fond of the idiot you once were? I think you can indulge that feeling from time to time, unproductive though it is, and Danny Boyle has given us licence to spend two hours unashamedly doing so. Whether it’s a good film or not (I still don’t know) doesn’t really matter.
There isn’t much of a story, but what story there is stealthily makes Spud (and Ewen Bremner has never been better) its hero, and the barely-there line of his journey from junkie to writer (and possibly author, because he seems to end up writing Trainspotting, in a bit of audacity that is entirely in keeping with the balls of the original) gives the film a heart and soul that it doesn’t find when it looks backwards. I don’t love every film Danny Boyle has made, but I do think there’s a towering humanity, a wellspring of love, shining through his work, and we see it here too. If there is a future, it belongs to Spud (in another nod to the original). But this film isn’t about the future, it’s about the past, and it isn’t shiny or perfect or whip-smart because it’s not supposed to be.
*The worst moment in the film is The Redemption Of Begbie, which is so ill-conceived that I hope it is expunged from future editions and we need never speak of it again.