A tale of masculinity, nostalgia and addiction

Warning: Contains Spoilers

There have been few sequels more eagerly anticipated than T2 Trainspotting, the follow-up to Trainspotting, Danny Boyle’s landmark film of 1996. Based on the original books by Scottish author Irvine Welsh, Trainspotting did not only depict the seedy subculture of addiction in the deprived housing schemes of Edinburgh but offered a biting social commentary on life under Thatcherism in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. Film critic Mark Kermode recalls the shocking scenes of intravenous heroin use and the dark originality of a movie which borrowed from the language of horror cinema. Trainspotting also embodied an ideology that challenged widespread assumptions about contemporary drug users and was radical in generating:

a debate about (‘generation ‘why not’) who are: “not crazed radicals, not junkies on a slow decline into the gutter, but discerning consumers who decide exactly how much they want to take, when, where and how often

T2 Trainspotting looks likely to easily overtake the original film in terms of revenue, and the overwhelmingly positive comments in the mainstream press and social media suggest that fans and critics agree that this is a worthy follow-up to its predecessor. T2 Trainspotting reunites the original gang. However, they are no longer young skinny boys but middle-aged men. At one level T2 Trainspotting is about life after destructive drug use but does the film also have something to say about bigger questions of masculinity, ageing and addiction?

When we return to T2, we discover that only Daniel “Spud” Murphy (Ewen Bremner) has failed to move on from his addiction to heroin. Francis “Franco” Begbie (Robert Carlyle), has been in jail ever since Mark “Rent Boy” Renton (Ewan McGregor) stole his money at the end of the first film. Renton has used this to help establish a life in the Netherlands.  Meanwhile, Simon “Sickboy” Williamson (Johnny Lee Miller) is trying to fund a business opportunity through acting as a pimp for his girlfriend and blackmailing her clients. He has also swapped heroin for cocaine.

The film opens with Renton pounding on the treadmill at his local gym in Amsterdam pushing his body to the limits until he collapses. The discovery of a heart condition precipitates a return to his old haunts in Edinburgh and a reunion with family and friends. In some ways, Renton could be said to represent something of a success, he has moved beyond Edinburgh, and he has moved beyond heroin addiction and even replaced it with another, somewhat healthier addiction exercise. As he declares to Spud, heroin addiction can be overcome with sufficient psychological strength:

 ‘It’s not getting it out of your body that’s the problem, it’s getting it out of your mind. You are an addict. If you’re going to be addicted, be addicted to something else […] You’ve got to channel it. You’ve got to control it’.

Renton paints his life in Amsterdam (falsely) as a success, with a partner, two kids, and a steady job – by his own account he is successful as a man. Spud, on the other hand, is still addicted to heroin. He is unable to organise his chaotic life and fails to attend the numerous interviews which are now a prerequisite for successfully claiming welfare benefits. He cannot provide financially for his girlfriend and son and sees only a bleak future ahead. Indeed, in one of the most dramatic scenes at the start of the film, Renton manages to locate Spud just in time to rescue him from suicide.

The film also deals, albeit comically, with a failure of masculinity of a different sort as Begbie breaks out from jail and returns to his wife and son. His shame at experiencing erectile dysfunction is dealt with by becoming increasingly violent and intolerant towards his son.  Begbie is thus faced with twin failures: as a sexual partner, solved by stealing a consignment of Viagra; and as a father, with his son, preferring to pursue a career in hotel management than a life of crime. These may be played for comedic value, yet there are clearly some important points here about masculinity.  As an impotent middle-aged man of limited education and economic means, Begbie has little to offer the wider world or to gain the respect of his peers, except for the threat of violence. The performance of masculinity which gave Trainspotting the vital and reckless energy of youth is replaced here with more thoughtful reflective moments about fatherhood and ageing.

Indeed, T2 Trainspotting plays on an intense filmic nostalgia that seems to be a current trend.  Within the film, the nostalgia is experienced vividly by the characters themselves as they take stock of a gentrified Edinburgh, revisit old haunts and process memories of a childhood where the future was full of possibility.  For the audience, Trainspotting and T2 Trainspotting are inseparable with the many cuts to the original film playing on this self-referential nostalgia. Director Danny Boyle recognises this:

There are two horses that run in it really […] You have knowledge of the original film and that experience, and then there’s now, culturally. You are aware of the other film.

T2 Trainspotting appears to have successfully bridged twenty years and significant political and social change. It highlights the problems of constructing masculinity while living through consequences of austerity, and some view it as providing an explanation for the tumultuous decision to choose Brexit at no obvious economic advantage to themselves:

The characters we see in Trainspotting are the losers under neoliberalism, a political system that creates and compounds a culture of haves and have-nots. But with hindsight it is easy to see these characters – Renton, Spud, Sick Boy and Begbie – as just the early losers of a system that would create so many losers that eventually people would choose anything but more of the same.

The original Trainspotting was criticised for glamorising drugs and showing a gritty but nonetheless tight-knit culture that was far from the reality of everyday life experienced by most heroin addicts. Here, drug use was a predominantly social activity which provided an opportunity for entertainment, banter and bonding with friends. On reflection, it was far removed from the experience of actual drug users:

You just want to be left alone to do heroin. Even if someone overdoses, your first thought is not, ‘Oh, are they OK?’ Your first thought is to seek out where they got the heroin from – that’s how sad it is. Everyone uses everyone, and if you do build relationships it’s for a common purpose, to get what you need. It’s dog eat dog.

But the redemption, depicted in T2 Trainspotting is sometimes possible and symbolized by Garry Fraser, a former heroin addict who worked with the production crew as second unit after being introduced to Danny Boyle by Irvine Welsh. Fraser has spoken openly of his early life in Muirhouse with alcoholic parents. The birth of his son triggered a significant change for him and he describes himself as being “trapped by masculinity”. In his view “Anyone that makes a Scottish movie, masculinity tends to be a contributing factor. We seem to excel at fighting and drinking.”

If Trainspotting was considered to embody ‘white male rage’ then perhaps T2 Trainspotting depicts something more disturbing, a defeated acceptance of how things are:

They are more likely to drop out of treatment and may have other conditions chronic conditions like Hepatitis C. We are seeing an increase in people with the damaging effects of other drugs like cigarettes and alcohol. They may also have been through tragic events like the death of a family member or social isolation after being cut off from their family.

The film ends on a note of hope yet the reality for these characters is likely to be an early death.  The legacy of the ‘Trainspotting generation’ is a sharp increase in drugs related deaths amongst men in their 40’s who began injecting heroin in the 1980’s. Heroin is now only one of the problems and risks that this generation faces. Somewhat paradoxically, when considered in this light, T2 Trainspotting, despite its comedic capers, its romantic nostalgia and its lack of hard-core drug abuse, is actually offereing us a vision that is far bleaker than its 20-year-old precursor.