Last night, my partner Nancy and I watched Trainspotting 2 at the cinema. We had completed the obligatory reminder viewing of the first film earlier in the weekend. I hadn’t seen Trainspotting in years, although I am so familiar with the film I could probably recite it from memory. It was funny realising how influential the film had been on me when growing up, with it’s core message still relevant today.
I had high hopes for the sequel, and film reviews seemed positive (by the way, spoilers). As it turned out, one of the main thrusts of the film could apply to the reviews. In the film there’s a moment when Renton, Sick Boy and Spud go to pay their respects to Tommy (who you’ll remember died in the first film in a pool of his own vomit). Renton says he’s paying respects, but Sick Boy remarks it’s actually nostalgia. “You’re a tourist, visiting your own childhood.” The reviews, and the film itself, are arguably guilty of a similar fault.
The film’s plot is not too remarkable. Renton returns after a 20 year hiatus, facing various accusations from his old friends that he betrayed. There’s some revenge plot with Begbie, and some nonsense about a brothel and criminal enterprise. Really though, this is about Renton’s reflection on life after his 20 years in Amsterdam.
In truth, it’s never quite clear why Renton returns when he does. There’s some mention about a divorce and a heart condition, but I struggled to understand why he was staying in Edinburgh at all. He’s met with various accusations by his friends about betrayal. Even Spud accused Renton, since being left 4 grand was only going to go in one direction – more heroin.
Spud actually becomes the character with the most growth throughout, becoming a typical of fictional Irvine Welsh figure (I assumed that was the natural comparison – many lines of his fiction are from the original book) as he starts to write as a means of combatting his heroin addiction.
Heroin makes little feature in the film. A central character in the first film, it is given the same treatment as other characters where it is exhibited merely as a form of nostalgia. There’s one scene where Renton and Sick Boy shoot up together. Nothing comes from it, except a slightly haunting shot of a distraught Spud watching from the hallway. There’s no consequence at all, no dilemma, no question in Renton’s mind about taking heroin again after 20 years. Sick Boy is introduced with a cocaine addiction, but this too has little or no consequence (it seems to get forgotten by the end of the film). It’s a heavily sanitised, Hollywoodesque version of drug using. It’s shown as a reminder, but lacking the three dimensional discourse that permeated the first film.
The original film had more gusto than this, challenging head on the conventional thinking of heroin and forcing 1990’s society (well the part that was paying attention) to rethink its assumptions. This film offers none of that. We are joining Renton as tourists, visiting his childhood, and ours, as we meet familiar characters.
There are some funny and poignant moments, but too much is piecemeal and slightly forced. Renton has a ‘choose life’ monologue, updated for the 21st century, but even this seems a little cosmetic. There’s more feeling in Spud’s inner conflict, trying to explore his past with written words; Begbie’s realisation that he’s old and his reflection on his past, forcing Spud to read aloud the segments that reference him. Most of it though is stuff on the sidelines.
Female characters are woefully underused. The film could have been shot without any female characters. Maybe that reflects the ‘boys own’ quality of the film, but it’s a missed opportunity. Anjela Nedyalkova has the most screen time, but is ultimately wasted with few chances for viewers to empathise with her. She ultimately disappears stealing (a lot of) money from Renton and Sick Boy. Her role is shrunk to a opportunistic thief, and with a heart of gold touch that renders her screen presence meaningless.
Kelly MacDonald’s brief cameo is equally frustrating. It’s a role that could have been played by anyone and given Kelly M’s talent, and the more meaningful engagement of her character in the first film, it’s sad they couldn’t bring more for that character.
Pauline Turner, playing Begbie’s wife, has perhaps the most compelling role, but is sadly underused. Shirley Henderson’s inclusion as Spud’s ex is similarly under-utilised. It’s as though the producers/writers/director couldn’t think of a decent female role and included them for sake of adding women. Tokenistic additions that could have been absent without sacrificing the plot.
And really, that’s the film summed up. Bit parts and slight, casual references that do nothing to develop the characters. We become the tourists in a hollow and sanitised sequel that offers only a glimmer of what could have been. Disappointed.