Nostalgia can be a killer. It makes you look back on the past with a false, rosy glow. It can make things seem happier than they were. Nostalgia can make you less driven to find a better future, in the false belief that things used to be much better beforehand.
It can also be the kiss of death for film franchises. In a time when everything can be reborn as remakes, belated sequels and reboots, holding onto a false idea of past works can become a real creative danger. A filmmaker needs to find an approach and stick to it. Star Wars: The Forces Awakens actively embraced a sense of nostalgia to present a crowd-pleasing film that deliberately copied the story beats and elements of the 1977 original. Ryan Coogler’s Creed picked up the Rocky saga and side-stepped the nostalgia problem with a fresh protagonist and a new angle on the material.
Along comes Danny Boyle’s T2 Trainspotting, a sequel to his critically acclaimed cult hit Trainspotting (1996) and returns to its four key characters 20 years after Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor) ran out on his three best friends with £16 grand of drug money. Boyle, along with screenwriter John Hodge, is clearly not interested in wallowing in nostalgia or side-stepping it. Instead Boyle grabs that fictionalised sense of the past with both hands and aggressively interrogates it. Where did the characters go after the end of the original film? Did they make something of their lives? The answer to those questions are, respectively, nowhere and no.
Renton returns to Edinburgh for the first time in 20 years to reconnect with his old friends and to make amends for running out on them. He finds Simon (Jonny Lee Miller) running a failing public bar, high on cocaine, while operating a blackmail operation on the side. Spud (Ewen Bremner) is still a junkie, with a wife and son who kicked him out and no hope for the future. The fearsome Begbie (Robert Carlyle) is still in prison, having had his original sentence extended for violent behaviour. Before long Simon has roped Renton into a fresh criminal scheme, Spud has discovered a renewed sense of purpose, and Begbie has escaped from prison with revenge on his mind.
There is a bleak, grounded sense to the film. Edinburgh has changed a lot in the past two decades, via gentrification and immigration, and it leaves Renton a dislocated stranger in his own city. At the same time no one has changed. Renton is still essentially a coward who places self interest above his friends. Simon is still an actively manipulative and repellent criminal, albeit one whose earlier charms have faded through age and drugs. Begbie is still a violent, dangerous lunatic, one whose criminal behaviours seem so deeply ingrained that he has no hope of a peaceful life. And Spud – poor drug-addicted Spud – remains as sympathetic core as ever. Despite his addiction he is the only genuinely good-hearted person that the group ever had.
The past haunts the film, deliberately so, in momentary flashbacks and deliberate visual echoes. Spud pauses by an archway and glimpses his past self run down the street with a young Renton. Renton goes to see his father – his mother died of cancer while he was gone – and while they sit in the kitchen, the shot deliberately copying one from the original film, Renton’s shadow makes it look as if his mother’s ghost is sitting beside him. The flashbacks even extend beyond scenes from the first film and show the characters in their childhood. They all seem chained to the past. It is not nostalgia; if anything, it feels like tragedy.
Each of the lead actors slip back into their roles with apparent ease. They not only recapture the original performances, each of them actively advances them. Time is spent giving each character their own moments to develop and expand. They feel like richer and more expansive versions of the original portrayals. Shirley Henderson and Kelly Macdonald both make brief appearances as ex-girlfriends Gail and Diane. I have seen some criticisms that Macdonald in particular feels under-utilised. I disagree: I think seeing Diane as a successful lawyer getting on with her life is the perfect detail for the story that Boyle and Hodge have chosen to tell. Any more with destroy the point of her appearing at all. Anjela Nedyalkova makes a strong impression as Veronika, Simon’s girlfriend who participates in his and Renton’s various illegal schemes.
The film is impeccably and imaginatively shot, echoing the slightly non-realist style of the original film. The soundtrack is well developed and successfully walks a tightrope between referencing the famous songs of 1996 but not overly relying upon them. It is, all things considered, about as perfect as one can expect a sequel to get. It presents an unexpectedly realistic future for the characters. They don’t change – no one ever really does, do they? – but it does bring them home. It puts them each where they are supposed to be and, having re-opened the book on Trainspotting, carefully closes it once again.