Trainspotting/T2 double review

trainspotting then and now

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After watching T2 Trainspotting last month I left the cinema in awe and wonder, having watched what I would describe as a masterpiece in tone, writing and beautiful cinema-making, and I made a resolution to revisit the 1996 original, both to re-experience the special quality of the first film, driven by the incredible nostalgia ignited by T2, and also to see whether retrospectively the film lives up to its reputation and matches the sequel in quality of filmmaking. Yes, you read that right. I wanted to see if Trainspotting was as good as the sequel.

Every review compares the new film to the predecessor. It’s impossible not to reference the Danny Boyle classic since this film is a nostalgia trip for fans of the original and a personal project for the director and the actors to return to the characters and the story that represent such a key point in their career. There is so much love for that film that it stands to reason that there would be enormous pressure on a sequel and that most critics would be pessimistically hoping the new film would meet expectations rather than entertaining the idea that it might be better. I wouldn’t want to say that either film is better but I would say that Danny Boyle has grown as a director getting better and better. I spent a good hour of T2 amazed at every single sequence, every shot was perfect and as I say the result was beautiful. That’s not an adjective I would use for Trainspotting.

At this point I should say that prior to watching T2 I only saw Trainspotting once and it was several years ago. It wasn’t quite 21 years ago though as I would have been 7 years old and probably not the right age to appreciate this dark, tragic and comic, hard-hitting drama. After watching the film a second time, I can tell you that the film still packs a punch and even on the second viewing it still manages to shock, but to say the film isn’t any less relevant would be a lie. The film is still brilliant but what made the film so culturally significant was how it became embedded in popular culture, how it shaped British cinema, how it summed up a culture at that time. It would be foolish to try and recreate that film today.

There are many moments in the film that are repulsive. The controversies are not just plain to see but are pounced upon and stretched as far as they can go, not for the sake of selling tickets but to aim for truth and a real sense of tragedy. But for all the horrible emotions this film stirs there is a real heart and likability to the cult classic, whether you’re from Leith and know first hand the world these characters inhibit, or you’re American, middle-class and privileged. I believe that everyone can relate to these characters and considering the dark circumstances they represent that is astonishing. Boyle’s superb use of music and the undercurrent of dark humour probably has something to do with it.

The tone created in that original film was fantastic so it is surprising that a completely different tone is established in the sequel. Actually it’s not that surprising given I already said it would be foolish to recreate Trainspotting today. T2 is nostalgic and self-referential, written for fans of the first film, made to revisit the 1990s fondly and bring back pleasant and not so pleasant memories, but it is also a very different beast, a film that has no intention of emulating its predecessor or copying the past. This is not like Jurassic World or The force awakens, both of which play on nostalgia and end up being remakes of their predecessors (very good remakes but still remakes). No, Danny Boyle has taken what would inevitably be a central focus in this film, the ideas of nostalgia and ageing, and made this the key themes in his new drama. This film doesn’t share the same hard-hitting subject of the earlier masterpiece but it is nonetheless a brilliant exploration of getting old and not growing wiser, of returning to face your demons and of struggling with change and no change.

I can easily understand why some critics feel that it doesn’t live up to the first film. But in truth, comparing the two films as I have done, is a little meaningless. If not for the continuous references to the earlier work, the two could be seen as entirely separate works. And I saw the film with people who hadn’t seen the first film who seemed to enjoy it enormously. I doubt in fact that they would have shown similar admiration for the other film, which is overall a much harder watch. T2 is still dark and comic but probably funnier in tone and slightly less controversial. Popular music is as ever with Danny Boyle put to excellent use but to my mind this film is far more polished and shows a wealth of experience that has amassed over the last two decades. But as I say it is churlish to compare the two.

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