Saturday, 4 February 2017

Film Review: T2 Trainspotting just about gets away with itself

How powerful of a feeling is nostalgia? That's a question that Danny Boyle's sequel to his massive 1996 hit Trainspotting seems intent on answering. Nostalgia is already a difficult emotion to tap into. You don't feel nostalgic towards memories or emotions you aren't fond of, so making nostalgia a film's key selling point is a huge gamble. That's exactly what T2 Trainspotting does  - the film is fundamentally focused on nostalgia. In fact, it probably can't exist without it. I have fond memories of the original Trainspotting, I've always been a huge fan of it. And so, regrettably, the fact that even I felt this sequel's engine splutter and burst before the midway point bodes rather badly for anyone with anything less than an average fondness for its predecessor.

Making a sequel twenty years later is no easy feat, but Boyle and his cast are up for the challenge. Fortunately, the one thing T2 gets consistently right is the fact that no one can declare it a rip off of the original - in fact, these films couldn't be any more different. Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor) returns to his hometown after living in Amsterdam for twenty years, having run off with all of his friends' money before he left. He reconnects with Daniel/"Spud" (Ewen Bremner) and tries to help him outgrow his addiction, purposely avoids Francis/"Begbie" (Robert Carlyle) who still wants revenge for the money Renton stole twenty years ago, and starts a business development with Simon/"Sick Boy" (Jonny Lee Miller), even if the morals behind it aren't particularly great.

Much like its predecessor, T2's plot isn't particularly essential to the overall feel and tone of the film. While Trainspotting is fuelled by energy and insanity, T2 is calmer and more considered. The energy and intoxicating inventiveness that made Trainspotting such a terrific film is missing from this sequel. It's very easy to make a case for why this is - most people have less energy at forty years old than they do at twenty, after all - which means it doesn't completely hamper the film. It makes for a stirring and occasionally thoughtful sense of age and growth, but it makes for a more scattershot and, ultimately, lesser film.

Quite a lot of T2 is noticeably uneven. The film's humour never really finds its own identity - the more grotesque comedy is gone and replaced with something more dialogue driven, but it's a tone that doesn't sit well with the characters. A brilliantly funny scene inside a Protestant bar that involves a makeshift song and ends with a massive theft is the clear comedic highlight of the film, and Spud's facial expressions are as funny now as they were twenty years ago, but the film's slapstick humour doesn't register. It expects us to find an early fight between Renton and Simon funny, yet the sequence is more emotionally weighted than the film seems to realise. It abandons the energy of its predecessor to create a sense of passed time but fails to include the humour in this growth.

As well as the humour feeling scattershot, T2's emotional core is also frustratingly rocky. The return of Kelly MacDonald's Diane makes for a nice scene, and there's a genuinely touching moment between Begbie and his teenage son, but other sequences don't fare so well. Spud, despite Bremner's best efforts, isn't focused on enough for his relationship with Gail to really flourish and a brief interlude focusing on Begbie's relationship with his own father almost halts the film dead due to its complete irrelevance. There are moments that strike the heart harder than you'd expect, but they often come with the knowledge that the film will try something similar pretty soon and not quite hit the nail on the head next time.

Yet while T2 is mostly uneven in its humour and emotion, the strength of its lead performances never falter. McGregor, Bremner, Miller and Carlyle remain just as natural and engaging as they were last time around, and perfectly bring their characters back to life in imaginative ways. McGregor's delivery of a second "Choose Life" speech is pitch perfect in how it recaptures the tone of the original speech but feels more angry at the ways life has turned out, while Miller and Carlyle handle the dynamic between their characters exceptionally. Even when the humour falls flat and the heart is lacking, it's mostly fun just to watch these actors play these characters again.

And T2 ultimately relies on that entirely. The film's sense of nostalgia is almost overwhelming in its massive weight. Naturally, as a fan of the first film, it created that warm little feeling inside me almost every ten minutes. Be it from a repeated musical cue or the return to a now iconic location or a reference to the past through one of Spud's stories, T2 made me smile constantly. But nostalgia isn't enough to carry a film. It's enough to keep things moving and hold your attention, but it can't break through the walls of a film that perhaps just didn't need to be made. It's nice to see these characters again, and it's nice to come away feeling glad that it hasn't in any way damaged its predecessor, but T2 is very far from smooth sailing. If you didn't love the original, you'll find little of interest here. But if you did? Well, the nostalgia will hit you just as hard as Begbie's glass hit that poor woman in the pub back in good old, drug soaked 1996 Edinburgh.

In A Sentence

Overwhelming nostalgia and a quartet of lovable performances keep things lively, but T2 Trainspotting can't quite muster up its predecessor's giddy inventiveness and infectious energy to make for a fully satisfying sequel.

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