NEW YORK, March 19 — Ghosts of the past, both literal and figurative, haunt T2 Trainspotting, Danny Boyle’s droll and wistful return to the Scottish reprobates who, 21 years ago in Trainspotting, made heroin addiction a blast and bodily waste a metaphor for squandered lives.
Excremental flourishes notwithstanding, that gloriously scabrous picture also kick-started the careers of its director and stars, most of whom are back to illustrate the consequences of a misspent youth. Renton (Ewan McGregor) has returned to Edinburgh from Amsterdam, ready to face the music for absconding with his pals’ share of the loot from the previous movie’s drug deal. Simon (Jonny Lee Miller) is still scraping by on the criminal fringes, trying to transform his rundown bar into an upscale brothel. And Begbie (Robert Carlyle) — whose drug of choice has always been violence — has just wangled an appropriately bloody escape from prison.
Then there’s sweet, pathetic Spud (Ewen Bremner), still chasing the dragon and explaining to a support group why the biggest obstacle to sobriety is daylight saving time. His rant is hilarious, the patter rapid and twisted and defiantly, exuberantly Scots. (The script is once again by John Hodge, drawing from the novels of Irvine Welsh.) Though a few words were subtitled after I saw the film, the general absence of translation is fully in line with a middle-finger attitude that the first movie cherished and its successor urges its characters to question.
To that end, Boyle wisely doesn’t try to surpass, or even repeat, the mad, frenetic rhythms of the original. Gone is the druggie propulsiveness, the ecstasy of the high that injected such improbable joy into those wretched, long-ago lives. In its place is a more cautious, altogether creakier, energy, one that touchingly mirrors the emotional and physical states of men who are neither as spry nor as carefree as their younger selves. Euphoria has faded, and disappointment and disillusion have moved in.
But while T2 might be middle-aged, it’s very far from moribund, the despondent base notes shouldering a story of revenge and regret, amity and acceptance. Orchestrating an orgy of nostalgia — the train-patterned wallpaper in a childhood bedroom; scattered flashbacks to the men’s earlier capers — Boyle reprises the dodgy camera angles and tricky visuals that beckon us back to the first film with shameless deliberation.
This time, though, their purpose is more poignant. Playing with memory — the characters’ and our own — allows Boyle and his cinematographer, Anthony Dod Mantle, to conjure some of the movie’s loveliest, most melancholy images: the smudged shape of Renton’s dead mother sitting at her kitchen table; Spud detoxing on the floor of his crummy apartment, his anguished shadow looming, Nosferatu-like, above him.
If all this sounds unbearably depressing, be cheered. T2 never strays too far from laughs, most memorably in an exhilarating sequence that sends Renton and Simon to plunder a private club where partying Protestants belt out sectarian ditties. Leading the throng in a hastily composed anti-Catholic refrain, the two have never seemed so exultantly alive.
Aside from a warmly stabilising performance by Anjela Nedyalkova as Veronika, a Bulgarian prostitute and Simon’s business partner, the film’s women are barely seen and quietly worn down. Kelly Macdonald reappears as a successful, adult version of the schoolgirl Renton once deflowered, but the light in her eyes has gone out. Similarly, Spud’s girlfriend (Shirley Henderson) and Begbie’s wife (Pauline Turner) pop in only briefly, their faces betraying decades of emotional strain.
It’s fitting, then, that Veronika — the only character untouched by the original movie’s damaged universe — should be the catalyst for this picture’s ouroboros-style ending. As Spud fends off his cravings by scribbling the stories of his youth, one habit substitutes for another, and we are reminded of how little we change. And how much we sometimes wish that we could.
T2 Trainspotting is rated R for a bagful of vomit, mouthfuls of bigotry and nosefuls of cocaine. Running time: 1 hour 58 minutes. — The New York Times