Nostalgic is a loaded word, and it has been lobbed frequently and recklessly at T2: Trainspotting, the divisive follow-up to the 1996 art-house phenom that struck like a cinematic Molotov cocktail and seared its images in the brain, regardless of whether or not you wanted Blur’s “Sing” to trigger thoughts of a dead baby every time you hear it for the rest of your life.
Modern dictionaries interpret nostalgia along the lines of: “A wistful or sentimental longing for acquaintances, places or things from the past.” The movie’s producers likely rely on nostalgia in filmgoers of a certain age to revisit Renton, Spud, Sick Boy, Begbie, et al., some two decades—already?—later, but T2 itself is neither wistful nor sentimental.
In his novel Ignorance, Milan Kundera sheds light on nostalgia’s roots: “The Greek word for ‘return’ is nostos. Algo means ‘suffering.’ So nostalgia is the suffering caused by an unappeased yearning to return.” That definition is truer of T2, and applies to Renton and Spud in particular, though it’s not the usage employed by many of the movie’s detractors. And the film is fueled by more than a pining to return to the past, although fragments from Trainspotting are recalled and provide a framework for T2’s narrative and tone.
Pulling threads from Irvine Welsh’s books Trainspotting and Porno, writer John Hodge and director Danny Boyle spin a loose, satisfying yarn about the bonds and boundaries of friendship, about opportunities seized (or not), about where our choices take us, and about contemplating what we’ve done with a given chunk of years (reflection should not be confused with nostalgia).
At the end of the first Trainspotting, Renton (Ewan McGregor) absconds with the money from a drug deal orchestrated with his aforementioned friends; he reasons the conniving Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller) and volcanic Begbie (Robert Carlyle) will steal the cash themselves if presented the opportunity. Renton presumably goes straight and chooses life, leaving the largely innocent Spud (Ewen Bremner) a share of the score.
T2 finds Renton returning home to Scotland from Amsterdam upon news of his mother’s death. A bit doughy with early middle age, Renton presents himself as drug free, healthy and successful, much to the chagrin of Simon, nee Sick Boy, who since T1 has graduated from heroin to cocaine and now runs a ramshackle pub with seemingly a lone customer; but one of those traits doesn’t last, and two prove illusory.
Spud, meanwhile, remains a junkie in a perpetual cycle of kicking and recommencing heroin. He and Renton are reunited in a jarring sequence that recaptures the original’s delicate balance of humanity and bleak comedy, and fearlessness of bodily discharges.
And then there’s Begbie, freshly broken out of prison and stoking a smoldering grudge.
The men’s collective past inflicted its share of suffering on each, but what happens when that “unappeased yearning to return” is fulfilled? Simon may be haunted by the good old days, but they do not dictate his present. Likewise, Begbie desires retribution for Renton’s bygone act, but he’s not exactly the reminiscing type.
The contemporary notion of nostalgia is broached only once, when Renton leads Spud and a reluctant Simon to a makeshift memorial for their friend Tommy (whom AIDS claimed in Trainspotting) in a locale that should bring a smile to fans of the first film (“It’s a shite state of affairs to be in, Tommy, and all the fresh air in the world won’t make any fucking difference.”). Renton chides Simon for his impatience and lack of sentiment, and Simon snarls, “It’s just nostalgia. You’re a tourist in your own youth.”
To the extent that nostalgia is a theme in T2, the movie insinuates it is a drug as addictive and euphoric and erosive as heroin in its predecessor. Nostalgia may afflict Renton and Spud, but it ultimately drives them in different directions. We can surmise what becomes of Spud (a rewarding bookend), but what of Renton and the movie’s final shot? Renton, dropping the needle on a record that loops us back to the beginning of the first Trainspotting, chooses nostalgia; but the movie urges us to choose the future, choose life.