Boyle continues to explore dysfunctional men in poignant and funny sequel to a classic

David G. Hughes on Danny Boyle’s ‘T2: Trainspotting’ (2017)

During a post-screening Q&A, director Danny Boyle aptly summarised his Trainspotting sequel as being about “How disappointing men really are.” The remark got an approving laugh from the female members of the audience, who seemed not only to agree with Boyle’s suggestion but approve of how effectively the film manages to communicate it. It is easy to commandeer Boyle’s self-analysis and reflect it through the prism of his recent career, which has been inundated with fallible men. Case in point: Steve Jobs (2015); not so much a conventional biopic as an examination of male anxiety and the fear of paternal responsibility that made the titular tech-giant a giant asshole, particularly in relation to his tempestuous private life. Likewise, Trance (2013), the supremely underrated psychological thriller, is ultimately about the destructive capacity of delusional, jealous and possessive men.

T2: Trainspotting continues Boyle’s quest to reveal the tragic absurdities that make up the masculine mind by returning to the lives of four men incapable of growing up, who would rather talk about how life was than admit what life became. “You’re a tourist in your own youth,” Sick Boy (Johnny Lee Miller) tells Renton (Ewan McGregor), just returned to Edinburgh following a twenty-year hiatus in Amsterdam. But this is no nostalgia trip, an excuse to revere the good old days, this is a film about the bittersweet twang of nostalgia rearing its melancholy head up in everyday circumstance, and the pitiable way men attempt to process such a complex emotion.

It is rare that a sequel manages to justify its existence outside of commercial motive as this does. T2 is a natural continuation of the story, serving to add new layers of dramatic significance to the lives of beloved characters. This is in large part due to the twenty-year gap between the films, a lacuna that dictates that the film concerns itself with time. For sure it does, and with a flair rarely seen outside of Richard Linklater, but additionally the film manages to interweave this into an examination of working-class masculinity. Boyle is a filmmaker who straddles between the British traditions of social realism and stylised satire. While issues such as class and gentrification exist on the periphery of the film, it is also not out of the ordinary to watch Begbie (Robert Carlyle) thumping his chest like King Kong in a display of macho fervour, or get a belated erection following an exciting chase through the streets of Edinburgh – moments of hilarity that satirise masculinity. As the boy band re-unite and participate in childish play with air rifles and alcohol, Boyle’s reverence for stoic women, their maturity and ease of emoting, shines to make an effective contrast to the excessive and doleful braggadocio. While we are certainly prone to laughing at such antics (it should be said that the film is extremely funny), the films real achievement is the pathos earned by each character’s emotional unearthing and elaboration. A sub-plot involving Begbie and his son will make you laugh, but by the end it may also make you cry, as we see that this otherwise one-note psychopathic character exists in a prison he can never escape from. Likewise, Spud (Ewan Bremner), who in the first film was merely a comic moron, arguably becomes the film’s most sympathetic character.

Past and present, fathers and sons, dysfunctional masculinity – rightly or wrongly, this is hardly what people associate with Trainspotting. Since the original film’s 1996 release in a hellfire of controversy, a misinterpretation of the film’s meaning has persisted; rather than considered a resonant examination of friendship and alienation, it became regarded as a simplistic celebration of youthful hedonism and drug-use. It was always more, and T2 gives us more.

Rest assured, there is still an abundance of dynamism and formal maximalism that we’ve come to expect of Boyle. His multi-media, guerrilla style of filmmaking makes him one of the centuries most distinctive film artists, and making a sequel hasn’t made him any less brash or experimental. Certainly his use of music continues to impress; while many rightly praise his taste and aptitude as a disc-jockey (even the 2012 London Olympics soundtrack was excellent), the original music of his films are also worth abundant praise. Tracks such as “Revenge” in Steve Jobs, “Solomon” in Trance, and “Adagio in D Minor” in Sunshine (2007) elevate the cinematic drama into the realm of opera; Boyle’s preference for LOUD music, LOUD emotion and LOUD style defines his creative temperament. T2 is loud too, refusing to tip-toe around legacy and going full throttle in its plotless indulgences. If it doesn’t turn out to be the epoch-defining film that the original was, it still stands with integrity firmly intact. Unlike the lives of Renton, Spud, Sick Boy and Begbie, its likely that time will be kind to their on-screen return.

David G. Hughes

By David G. Hughes

David G. Hughes is the Northern-born, London-based Founder & Editor-in-Chief of Electric Ghost Magazine. He graduated in Film Studies (BA) from King's College London and Film Aesthetics (Mst) from The University of Oxford. He has written for Film International, Little White Lies, and more.