T2 Trainspotting – a review

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Spud and Renton, still running from the law along Edinburgh’s Princes Street

T2? What a stupid title! Okay, got that off my chest.

The gang’s all here, ‘Spud’ Murphy, (Ewen Bremner) Renton, (Ewan McGregor) Sick Boy, (Jonny Lee Miller) and the psychotic Begbie, (Robert Carlyle) only … only now they’re all movie stars. How did that happen?

It takes considerable suspension of disbelief to accept them as exponents of Scotland’s underclass. The film is based loosely on the novel Porno by Irvine Welsh. He appears as a well-to-do car dealer resetting stolen goods, but he’s really a celebrity doing a cameo.

As far as novels go, Welsh has the monopoly of petty crime and debauchery in the schemies. (Schemies: Scottish housing estates.) This time around, however, I was uneasy about stereotypes patronising people in Leith. Whether Leithians proud of their name writ large on movie screens will feel the same way is debateable. There are summer bus tours around “Trainspotting locations”.

Once the home of Mary of Guise, mother to Mary Queen of Scots, is its fame to rest on a film about junkies, not the Shore dockland shipping trade that once distinguished Leith as a separate town from Edinburgh? The official rules of golf initially formulated at Leith in 1744, were later adopted by the Royal and Anvcient Golf Club of St Andrews – there’s any amount of fascinating history in Leith.

These days Leith is a multicultural community with sizeable African-Caribbean and Asian communities – none feature in T2.

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Ewen McGregor and director Danny Boyle discuss a scene in the Queen’s Park

To digress for a moment; an interesting fact: without knowing it Hollywood highlighted both ends of the European drug trade. When Gene Hackman played Popeye Doyle, the fiery tempered homicide detective in The French Connection, the story recounted actual events. Interpol tipped off by the FBI broke up the main avenue of drug trade into the port of Marseille. Drug lords, ever ready with a Plan B, shipped the drugs up to the port of Leith, and couriered them through England back to Europe for distribution, leaving a generation of heroin and cocaine addicts in Edinburgh in their wake. Hollywood then financed and shot Trainspotting in Leith.

To the film: T2 is a triumph of the cinematic digital age, a kaleidoscope of images from Danny Boyle, a filmmaker who began his career as a music video director. It contains thousands of three second edits and 150 miles an hour flashy visuals, only now with an $18 million budget to play with, shot in Edinburgh and Glasgow – but it hides a shaky premise and shakier dialogue.

There were whole tracts spoken that I simply did not believe rang true. Dialogue sequences were alternately plausible and then unbelievable. At one point Renton is asked the meaning of the phrase “Choose life”. In the context presented the question didn’t ring true, but a new generation of cinemagoers need a quick history lesson, and the rest of us need reminded. Renton launches into an unstoppable, remarkably eloquent diatribe only an educated writer could compose.

The film carries a huge deficit. While the screenplay was being written we had imperialist Tories in Downing Street proclaiming English votes for English laws one day after hoodwinking  Scots into hanging on to a corrupt United Kingdom. Trump was on his way to the Whitehouse, and the SNP was fighting for Scotland’s dignity and civil rights. Europe was struggling against the rise of neo-fascism, newspapers conniving in its advancement, no strangers to the technique of negative propaganda. None of those profound concerns cross the lips of our gang. If Scotland was a ‘nation of wankers” back in Trainspotting’s day, with “wankers in London governing us” we are in a worse place now. What T2 offers us is three likeable rascals and a sad psycho.

Four loners; why they want to retrace their roustabout criminal days all over again is a mystery. When we first met them they were aware of the poverty of their surroundings. They had come to political conclusions about why they were poor, and disenfranchised. Now they don’t care, an attitude at odds with Scotland’s current mood.

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A quick-fire image for which the original Trainspotting was famous, a graphic illustration of an emotion

The premise of the plot is contrived. After twenty years apart all the original characters come together again at precisely the same time for various reasons. Begbie escapes from prison using the hospital doctor’s white coat cliché. His only thought on getting out is to punish Renton for stealing his loot. (He’s never sought out by the police, not even when back with his wife.) Renton has returned from a failed twenty-year marriage in Holland, and with a heart condition. He never speaks any Dutch.

Sick Boy has never left Edinburgh, moping about in his old bar, low-end of town, still making the wrong decisions, still thinking up scams, his latest dreaming of opening a brothel. They all happen to bump into Spud who’s still unemployed, though did try his hand as a joiner on building sites. To cap it all there’s even a very stiff Viagra joke last seen in every gross American comedy of the nineties.

The long delayed follow-up to Trainspotting has one watchable story, Spud’s survival and salvation. To everybody’s surprise and his too, he’s given ambition to be a writer. Screenwriter John Hodge of both the original film and T2 shows empathy for Spud’s inability to attain gainful employment. He hits on the idea of making him a latter day Irvine Welsh, or more accurately, television’s Peter McDougall.

McDougall is the seventies, west of Scotland television writer who won an Prix Italia for ‘Just Another Saturday’, about life in and among the Orange Lodge marches and culture. His pronounced ability was in recreating genuine working class dialogue and social predicaments.  His stories were uncomplicated, full of casual cruelty, sex and opportunism that get the poor and the disadvantaged through the day.

MacDougall, cousin to the late novelist and film writer Alan Sharp, (A Green Tree in Gedde, and feature films Night Moves, Rob Roy) began his working life as an odd job man. One day he found himself working in the London home of Colin Welland, writer of Chariots of Fire. Welland was the man who incautiously shouted “The Brits Are Coming!” as he accepted an Oscar. MacDougall was regaling him with stories of his Greenock home and family. Welland encouraged MacDougall to write down his anecdotes.”They’re very entertaining. People will read them. Write them as you speak them”.

Those same words are spoken by dominatrix Veronika, (Anjela Nedyalkova) to Spud. He takes her seriously and, duly inspired by a woman taking an interest in him, begins to write about his experiences with his old pals, scrawling hand-written passages on ripped out pages from a school jotter. He’s found a purpose in life. And we smile.

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Yes, the fop standing behind Stanley Tucci is Ewen Bremner, and both are wearing wigs!

I can’t claim to have discovered Ewan Bremner. He appeared in a couple of filmed dramas before I met him. When he walked into my auditions in Leith I knew I had the good fortune to meet a unique actor from Edinburgh. He was modest but determined to make a career in films. I liked him immediately, and have marvelled at his career ever since. That face only a mother can love was sculpted by Eduardo Paolozzi in his geometric period.

Watching T2 filled me with déjà vu. In my earlier production Spud’s attempted suicide sparks off the drama, similarly in T2. Life’s rough as a jobbing actor! At the end of the earlier film the group reach the top of Arthur’s Seat, a symbolic achievement for no hopers. In the middle of T2 Spud and Renton do the same thing, but the scene is given to Renton to make a preachy sermon about channelling compulsion into something positive. For a man unable to keep his marriage together, and aimless, it sounds awkward and patronising.

What’s missing is the extraordinary amount of courage that Renton, Spud, Sick Boy, and Begbie too, had – the sheer physical, elemental courage that drove them to do the things they did, including mainlining heroin to enter a world better than the one they inhabited. This time around they are all nihilistic, miserable sods.

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One of only two photographs of Anjelika Nedyalkova – a profile! – as Veronika the brothel Madame, here toasting the new enterprise with Miller and a reluctant McGregor

If T2 is anything to judge by, roles for women in films have not progressed. They’re still hard pressed housewives married to disappointed men, or hookers. My experience of Scots women has them psychologically stronger than men, better survivors. Welsh or possibly scriptwriter Hodge seems to recognise this but is fixated on women as sexual objects. The one female in the drama, the prostitute Veronika, is far stronger and smarter than the men interested in her when it comes to creating a better life. And the one the gang knew in their youth escaped – now a solicitor in T2, middle-class and estranged from their lives.

After seeing T2 I left the cinema complex in Leith docks with the distinct feeling I had seen a vanity project, beautifully crafted, excellent set designs, well acted, enjoyable identifying the streets and places of Edinburgh, but a movie star reunion nevertheless. This has been reinforced since by every interview of the team concentrating on McGregor’s falling out with Boyle over the loss of a role in Boyle’s first Hollywood project.

T2 is highly entertaining because of its rush of subliminal images, flights of fancy, and the breathless pace of the drama. It barely gives you a second to think about what you’ve just seen and heard. When you do stop to think you see the flaws. Neo-realism it is not.

The film has been released in the UK before the USA. The USA is where Trainspotting made its money, not in cinemas, but in multiple Blockbuster rentals as a cult video. Here, next to nobody in the media seems interested in what the film is trying to say.

T2 Trainspotting has to be saying more than, born in Leith, you die in Leith.

  • Star rating: Three and a half stars
  • Cast: Ewen McGregor, Ewen Bremner, Jonny Lee Miller, Robert Carlyle
  • Director: Danny Boyle
  • Writer: John Hodge
  • Cinematography: Anthony Dod Mantle
  • Music Editing: Allan Jenkins:
  • Duration: 1 hour 57 minutes

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8 Responses to T2 Trainspotting – a review

  1. Dek says:

    Thanks GB. A movie star reunion sums it up. Failed to live up the hype and a bit embarrassing at times in playing to outdated stereotypes. Saved for me by the brilliant piece in the bluenose club and the cashmachines aftermath.

  2. Grouse Beater says:

    ‘Fraid so, in my opinion. I left with mixed emotions. Commercial opportunism. Enjoy it at that level but don’t expect anything more.

  3. seanair says:

    Over all I enjoyed it, but thought there were lots of gaps in the story and a woman at the end taking £100,000 from two or three of the characters, surely not a starter for a T3 film in the future!!

    Difficult I know, but the main characters all had beautiful teeth (after their druggie lives!!), and yes I know Robert Carlyle was due to get a missing tooth put in after the film was made, but the remainder were sparkling.

    Same with accents, which were too posh apart from RC again, with his sweary words covering his talk.

    Like Dek, I enjoyed the The Rangers club, but wouldn’t put money on the two characters getting away with their “song”.

  4. Grouse Beater says:

    “Beautiful” movie star teeth! I missed that one. Still chuckling… 🙂

  5. Peter says:

    I enjoyed it. I expected it to entertain me for a couple of hours, which it did. I had no expectations of any social message. Like others, the Rangers club scene was the funniest for me but I suspect, even with the brief Voice-Over explanation of the King Billy/1690, the American audience are unlikely to ‘get’ it.

  6. Grouse Beater says:

    Fair point about the Billy references. Wonder if the film will be subtitled when it opens in the States?

  7. Papko says:

    FEW SPOILERS

    That’s an interesting review of T2, though I must say I did enjoy it, because it was NOT what I was expecting.
    I was aware some of the younger folk in the audience thought based on the trailer, that they had for the second part of Train spotting, they have a good case under the trade descriptions act.

    T2 is essentially a patchwork of small scenes, reference to the first film abound , as do the various homages- I thought the Begbie, Renton, fight at the end was a nod to “Bladerunner”, and I was hoping so much for a tragic ending. I do hope T3 never happens, unless its in an old folks home.

    Above all it was about memory, they all gather together, and reflect on their misspent youths. I loved the contrast between the desperate scamper of the shop lifters that opened T1, with the middle aged man on a treadmill having a seizure in T2.

    Spud was the only character I cared about and noting his writing was wondering if he was based on Irving Welsh?

    I do think Ewen Bremner is a brilliant actor, most recently in “Banished ” as the minister. None more poignant, than all conquering Begbie, who relies on viagra to fuel his macho energy. Begbie had some good scenes, and I was moved by his farewell to his family. I did chuckle out loud throughout, and the scene in the Orange Lodge was very good – was thinking is that scene not out the “Blues Brothers” or something.

    It was a film about middle age, directed and starring middle aged men – and reviewed by them as well. We would all like to go back 30 years and talk to our teenage selfs.

    8.5 out of 10 very enjoyable- only if you watched the first one in 1995, when you were twenty something.

  8. Grouse Beater says:

    A fair review, Papko. (hope you’re keeping well.)

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