Humanity Hallows Issue 5 Out Now
Pick up your copy on campus or read online
By Christopher Witty
When Trainspotting hit cinemas in 1996, the reaction from both audiences and critics was a kind of collective “WTF!?!”, mixing equal parts shock, hilarity and, above all, admiration for anyone with the balls big enough to pull off an adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s masterpiece. The performances were faultless and the music, reflecting both the current Britpop wave and punk’s founding fathers, was exact. John Hodge’s script brought the threads of the novel into a (semi)-linear narrative without losing Welsh’s poetic bad language and love/hate relationship with his characters. Danny Boyle took the speeded up/slowed down pacing of his directorial debut, the mightily creepy Shallow Grave, turned it up to eleven, and hammered the audience with a vomit-inducing, trippy barrage of imagery and sound.
Heroin addiction here served as more of a two-finger salute to conformity, rather than the glamorised advert for a viable way of life which some critics mistakenly found to be a fault on the film-makers’ part. The appeal for the audience lay, not in the lifestyle of the characters, but the opportunity to observe and, just for a short while, feel the danger of what it truly is to exist on the margins of society. This was adult entertainment that respected its audience enough to allow them to ride along, safe in the knowledge that anyone watching the film knew they could get off after the last reel, and discuss and quote to death line after line of superb dialogue.
In short, Trainspotting was Britain’s answer to America’s Pulp Fiction: a noisy, foul-mouthed, funny, dangerous gate-crasher to the mainstream which reminded film-goers that cinema should be artistic, daring and intelligent without ever losing sight of its main objective: to be ball-bouncingly entertaining.
So, twenty years on, why do we need Trainspotting 2? Why do we need to be reminded that the hedonistic, anything is possible, ‘Things are going to get better’ New Labour utopian wet dream turned out to be just that: a media-constructed wet dream? Do people honestly care about what happened to the likes of Renton, Sick Boy, Begbie and Spud? We shouldn’t, but it is a credit to all involved that we do.
1996 seems like yesterday as much as it does a lifetime ago. It was good while it lasted, but times have changed. Tony Blair turned into Satan almost overnight and America is being run by a seemingly psychopathic opportunist. Along with Brexit, everything is uncertain and somehow up in the air, and people are more comfortable on Facebook than engaging in any serious face-to-face interaction. There are still cinematic gems to be found among the relentless tide of spin-offs, reboots and re-imaginings (whatever they are), but on the whole there appears to be a cultural void. Or maybe I’m just getting old.
And, it seems, 20 years after Trainspotting, so are Renton, Sick Boy, Begbie and Spud. And they’re not fitting into their roles at all well. They are still a marginalised class of males, and this is very much a film from a male forty-something perspective. They are all failed fathers, they all cling onto a tentative code of male friendship which they continue to put to the test and they are all hankering for a past which, with the passing of time, has become more and more rose-tinted. As Sick Boy says to Renton, “You’re a tourist in your own nostalgia,” they are no longer a part of anything; instead they are reduced to merely observing themselves in a society that they cannot comprehend.
Renton’s updated and incredibly bitter bastardisation of his ‘Choose Life’ speech here turns his optimism and acceptance of a life of conformity 20 years ago on its head and leaves the viewer feeling that the options have become slim to unbearable. Despite its humour and energy, the focus in this film is largely on loss: the unavoidable loss of loved ones, the loss of opportunities. There is something depressing about watching these characters face the future by turning to shady delves into entrepreneurship and forays into risky, potentially life-threatening acts of abandon as a means of still feeling something, anything, that gives life an edge.
Where T2 succeeds is in the heart of these characters (even the reprehensible Begbie is given his own moment of humanity). Spud, the tragi-comic relief of the first film, is the one who leaves the audience with a feeling of hope. Hope in the power of artistic endeavour as a real, obtainable way of upward mobility without remoulding oneself to fit into an ever-changing society hung up on technological advancements and celebrity-obsessed gossip.
Under any other name, T2 would be a film celebrated as an indictment of the times in the same way as Trainspotting was heralded as a reflection of the times. It is very much a reflective piece of film-making and already feels like a classic. Its target audience is the same audience that appreciated the first film, yet that is not to say that it will alienate younger cinema-goers, as the whole experience seems completely natural rather than forced. Boyle’s direction is as frenetic as ever and is complemented by Hodge’s script, which is full of pathos and insight. It is a perfectly balanced film and, though it was not an easy feat to pull off (as was Trainspotting), it is a resounding success.