At this moment in time, the future and trajectory of any Scottish film industry that exists looks to be more uncertain than the next political election result, but it is worth considering briefly how, in days gone by, specifically in the 1990s, the Scottish film industry looked like it could have flourished beautifully into a fully formed Celtic Hollywood.
To look back on the highs of this time for Scottish cinema is quite extraordinary – Mel Gibson’s Academy Award-winning, and much-loved, historical (to a point) epic Braveheart, and smaller but nevertheless satisfying efforts like Gillies MacKinnon’s brutal Small Faces, Peter Mullan’s slightly surreal directorial debut Orphans, Anthony Neilson’s The Debt Collector which features one of Billy Connolly’s finest acting performances, The Big Man (also known as Crossing the Line), the fun Rob Roy which boasted a superb cast, and the magnificent My Name is Joe all showed promise of what could come. The 1980s also saw the rise and success of Bill Forsyth, with his lovely films Gregory’s Girl, Local Hero and That Sinking Feeling making a wide impression. Where and why it all crashed and burned, resulting in mediocre to downright awful productions such as Sunshine on Leith, Under the Skin, Legend of Barney Thomson, and the Whisky Galore remake, is debatable, and will be debated for some time, especially as there have been genuine, but flawed, attempts to push the industry forward again – an Edinburgh production studio being a current talking point. There have, to be fair, been good efforts in the noughties, specifically the wonderful, big-hearted Dear Frankie, which remains one of the very best examples of Scottish cinema. One More Kiss, Red Road, One Last Chance, and Sweet Sixteen were enjoyable efforts also, to varying degrees. Brave, despite being an American production by Pixar, generated a huge buzz around Scotland, and the possibilities of Scottish film, as well as being a fantastic film in its own right. Those other animated movies about Scotland – the two actually made (one partially, the other entirely) in Scotland – The Illusionist and Sir Billi – were little-seen and, in my opinion, not very good anyway. I appreciate The Illusionist has its fans, but even being such an animation fanatic, I must confess it bored me to tears.
However, one Scottish cinematic effort to come from this period, Shallow Grave, a genuinely funny black comedy, led by first-time director Danny Boyle, paved the way a couple of years later for what it is probably the second most-successful film (after Braveheart) to come out of Scotland – Trainspotting, adapted from the book by Irvine Welsh. Even though another Irvine Welsh adaptation came about shortly afterwards, the little-discussed but enjoyable The Acid House, and the decent Filth, starring James McAvoy, came about later in 2013, it is Trainspotting that is remembered and revered the world over. The success and appeal of the film is enough to write an article about, so I won’t bother going into it. But needless to say, any sequel was going to be a tough effort, and had very little chance of living up to the original.
Personally, Trainspotting remains one of my favourite films. Despite a lack of plot, the highs – pardon the pun – and lows the movie takes you on are unforgettable, and it is anchored by strong, natural performances (my only gripe there is I’ve always personally felt Ewan McGregor was a little miscast in his role). It is also, when it wants to be, very funny. A sequel, set 20 years later, sounds like a great idea, and it had every potential to be a tremendous followup that had strong story and nuance, as well as humour. In theory, if all the essential elements had come together, this could have been phenomenal. On paper, perhaps it was. Alas, the final film we were given is heavy on emotional reflection, and funny in places, but lacking everywhere else.
T2 Trainspotting follows Renton who, after a health scare, decides to return from Amsterdam, where he has been hiding, to Edinburgh to see his old friends, who he fled from at the end of the first movie when he stole the money they had made in a drug deal. He reconnects with Spud, who is still a heroin addict, Sick Boy who is running a blackmail operation with Bulgarian escort Veronika, and his father who still lives in the family home (Renton’s mother has passed away between the films). Renton and Sick Boy, aka Simon, decide to start a brothel, meanwhile Begbie breaks out of prison, where he has been for years, and wants to get revenge on Renton for stealing the money.
My main problem is the story, or lack thereof. Although many have tried to argue that the original had no story either, here is the problem – this sequel spends a large amount of its time trying to convince you that it’s a totally different film from the original, therefore the only way of successfully being a completely distinctive, contrasting film in its own right was to give it a plot, and a strong one. There are a few attempts – Renton and Sick Boy’s plan to open a brothel, Spud’s attempts to get clean, Renton’s health issues, Renton and Sick Boy returning to heroin use, Begbie escaping prison and living life on the run from the authorities, but most of these story strands lead nowhere, or to an unsatisfying conclusion. For example, a large portion of the beginning is spent showing Begbie busting out of jail, and finding his family and old friends. After so much time is spent on him attempting to get his revenge, he is simply sent back to prison at the end – the movie has just gone full circle, rather than show a definitive true arc. Is Trainspotting 3 going to begin with Begbie breaking out of prison – again – so he can get revenge – again? The introduction of Begbie’s son, an underwritten and noticeably bland character, is underwhelming and ultimately adds to nothing. This creates the problem that the film, rather than being brave and taking bold choices, instead ends up feeling largely redundant.
It is curious that the film abandons much of the plot from the sequel book, Porno, that the film is loosely based on. The book follows the characters meeting up again a decade later, similar to T2, but also shows them working together, trying to get ahead in the porn industry. What potential for story! Having the four meet up again near the beginning (as opposed to literally at the climax of the film) and try to be friends again and work together despite the betrayal that plagues their relationship, only for them to descend into arguments again and eventually get to the violent climax, which would then have meant so much more. How much better a film would that have been.
Many people talk of the emotional aspect of the film – the old men reflecting on their youth – as being a great approach, and it is one of the satisfying elements of the finished movie, but it isn’t enough to justify the film’s existence. If they had taken an intelligent approach, they would have created a plot around these issues, allowing a story to move forward intriguingly and coherently, while the questions are pondered and the rumination is discussed in the backdrop of the plot, in the quieter moments. A tighter plot would have allowed them to cut the unnecessary scenes that plague the finished film – Begbie introducing his son to Mikey Forrester, the meeting with now-lawyer Diane (Kelly Macdonald, in the only cameo ever to get highest billing after the main cast). Instead, we end up with a film that spends the majority of its running time basically saying “Do you remember that really great movie you watched and loved? We’re going to spend two hours reminding you of it!”
The performances from the cast are honourable, there are some nice little lines (former underage seductress Diane’s warning to Renton that Veronika is too young for him was a nice touch) and there are a few laughs to be found (the most memorable for the majority is probably “No More Catholics Left”, even though it is a little over-the-top and prodding desperately for a laugh in a way normally reserved for rubbish sitcoms).
If Scotland wants to create a film industry that can survive on its own terms, without public subsidy, it has to start creating films with commercial appeal (and some filmmakers just don’t know how to do that). The priority has to be creating stories that people all around the world can relate to, with characters they can love – with the Scottish tropes and identity in the background, not at the front and centre. It isn’t enough to simply throw up the arms and shout “This is Scotland!” (as a character in Filth, at one point, literally does) – defining Scottish identity or spending most of the running time promoting Scotland is not the job of a movie. If Scottish movies are to start having global interest, we need to make films that are accessible and universal. T2 could have been a good step in the right direction. Sadly, there’s not nearly enough here to rationalise the effort put in to make this film, two whole decades after its predecessor. It will certainly never live up to the first film, let alone have its re-watch value, or ever be included in a list of Greatest Ever Sequels. We waited 20 years for this – and after the understandable hype, the final result is less a hit, more a bit of a comedown.