Going into T2 Trainspotting, our last glimpses of Renton, Sick Boy, Spud, and Begbie, were when we saw one smashing up a hotel room with imminent arrest awaiting him, one having been left completely swindled by his best friend, one collecting four thousand pounds waiting for him in a locker, and one wandering down the street at a leisurely pace with twelve thousand pounds as a voiceover tells us he’s decided to “choose life” and going to become “just like you”.[1] T2 Trainspotting sees these characters grown up, but in some ways distinctly lacking in having actually grown up. Now referred to as Mark, Simon, Spud (his nickname retained for reasons that will soon become apparent), and Franco, these characters engage with, and create a dialogue within the film regarding, contemporary masculinity. T2 Trainspotting explores its characters’ varying shades of idiocy, self-indulgence, and their turbulent relationship with middle age in a way that both reveals more about them than we saw in the first film, and contextualises these beloved figures within larger questions of what it is to be a man in the 21st century.

A lot has changed in twenty years, but one thing that has remained the same is Spud. With each character we have a short reintroduction back into their lives. Mark lives in Amsterdam, and the film opens with him falling off a treadmill, Simon secretly films public figures getting sodomised in order to blackmail them, Franco is still in jail and being denied early release, and Spud is Spud: we left him twenty years ago as a drug addict in the gutter, and we find him now as a drug addict living in an Edinburgh high rise. The consistent infantilisation of his character shines above all else. In a comedic turn, Spud explains how his life was turned upside down after getting off heroin, by the mere fact that British Summer Time exists, making him an hour late to everything and costing him his job, benefits, and visitation time with his son. As Spud says, “how was I to know? I’ve been on skag past twenty years”.[2]

While a quick laugh certainly arises from the near-perfect delivery of these lines from Ewen Bremner, the underlying message of Spud’s words is the complete lack of development within his life. His world is still defined by his stunted relationships with his estranged partner, Gail, and his son, Fergus, which hint at the improbability of his ever fulfilling of a patriarchal role. This is especially true with Spud trying to navigate a world of zero-hour contracts where you can lose your job near-instantaneously for being late, gaming consoles distracting from lasting bonds forming between parent and child, and the ease with which an older generation can find itself disillusioned with a rapidly changing society in which social media is arguably more of an addiction – and certainly a more widely spread one – than even heroin was. In such an environment Spud finds himself unable to cope with his inability to provide for his family; he, like an alarming number of men in the Western world, elects to kill himself. Spud’s decision to choose death is averted by Mark’s timely intervention, but through this suicide attempt T2 Trainspotting gestures to a larger structural societal problem. Middle age, a perceived inadequacy in terms of filling the masculine role as provider, and suicide are all connected by a fundamental problem of masculinity’s fixed definition with certain, prescribed characteristics. These vary from being a provider for one’s family, to suppressing emotions and thus having an inability to form meaningful connections with other people, to even having a certain physical build. These characteristics, consistently compounded within the psyche of the modern middle-aged man, causes a plethora of men to see themselves as failures in conforming to their gender role in society, sometimes leading them to take extreme actions.

These problems of modernity and masculinity are not unique to Spud; his old partners in crime are each going through their own crises as well. Simon’s difficulties refer back to the original film more concretely. While certainly no one was blind to the suggestion that Simon, or Sick Boy as we knew him then, was the father of Dawn, the heartbreaking casualty of the gang’s heroin addiction in Trainspotting, Renton’s observation at the time that “it wasn’t just the baby that died that day. Something inside Sick Boy was lost and never returned”,[3] has only become more true with the passing of time.  By T2 Trainspotting, Simon has become purely an amoral conman, and the twenty years that have since passed seem to have heightened the cynicism with which Simon views the world. He has even transferred his masculine idolatry from James Bond, about whom he talks endlessly in Trainspotting, to George Best, who Simon prizes especially because of the famous footballer’s hedonistic lifestyle.

Simon seeks to exploit everything around him. He uses his “girlfriend”, Veronika, to obtain the aforementioned footage of sodomy of those he blackmails, while consistently dosing himself with regular lines of cocaine. His consistent anger throughout the film maps perfectly onto his view of the world as commodity: everything that can be exploited will be. His girlfriend, his best friend, his aunty’s pub, and all the women he wants to employ in his “sauna”, even the EU urban regeneration fund. His entire worldview is crafted by money and subsequently, he can’t emotionally connect with anything. Symbolised by his characteristic as a voyeuristic blackmailer, he is numbed to empathy and emotion, except, as we see in his and Mark’s first encounter, his attachment to the money that was stolen, and the feeling of betrayal he still carries with him.

But this is what he has always been taught to be, conditioned by an archetypal masculinity that displaying emotion is frowned upon, Simon has therefore ceased feeling it. This transformation commenced with the loss of Dawn in Trainspotting, but he has only had this development reinforced further. For Simon to have developed from Sick Boy and his quips about James Bond, to Simon, the detached and broken man seeing the world only in terms of the commodity, is a signal as to the damage Simon’s preconceived notion of masculinity can cause. He internalises the trauma of Dawn’s death instead of trying to come to terms with it, and this unresolved trauma in turn warps his perception and treatment of the world around him.

When his reunion with Mark comes, and for the majority of the film thereafter, the only emotion Simon appears to be capable of feeling is an anger fuelled by subdued resentment. No sooner than laying eyes on Mark, he haphazardly begins to attack him in an inept and fairly slapstick and comedic sequence, the two stumbling around the bar in at attempt to find weapons as a regular customer sits and calmly enjoys his pint. While this abrupt break into violence is consistent with both Trainspotting and T2 Trainspotting’s casual inclusion of stabbings, vomiting, and punching, the strange punctuations and emphasis that the editing – particularly the sound editing – give to the scene, helps to align Simon and Mark’s stumbling fight with T2 Trainspotting’s depiction of the characters’ masculinity more generally. Here, as in the rest of the film, Mark and Simon’s attempts to play up to traditionally masculine traits is a series of faltering interruptions, jolting out every so often in a desperate need for the characters to prove themselves. For Simon, reconciling with Mark, and the possible restoration of a stable, homosocial relationship with his old best friend seems overbearing. Embittered by twenty years of being a conman and a pimp, Simon associates all of this, his “lot in life”,[4] with Mark’s betrayal in the last few minutes Trainspotting. Simon can’t simply embrace this relationship again, even though this is the outcome Mark is idealistically hoping to achieve.

The character seemingly most emasculated, angered, and (unsurprisingly) violent about Mark’s actions is, of course, Franco. While the majority of his reintroduction centers around his escape from prison, there are some excellent explorations of Franco’s violent disposition, relationship towards women, and – like Spud – his role as a patriarchal figure. The revelation of his impotence when in bed with his wife post-breakout seems to intertwine itself with Franco’s ever-volatile relationship with violence. Arguably even more psychopathic than when we last saw him, he knocks out a doctor carrying donor organs in order to obtain a disguise and violently beats a man (we never find out how badly) who disturbs one of the father-son heists through which Franco tries to mould his son in his image. None of this is able to restore his libido once he returns home, and neither does a certain little blue pill, but there is one thing that does: attacking Mark Renton. In an brilliantly executed sequence that blends comedic timing of Mark’s phone going off, and a tense chase scene, Franco manages to land a hit that puts a deep stab wound in Mark’s arm. Mark escapes, but, as the camera pans down to Franco’s trousers, we see that stabbing Mark Renton has left our favourite psychopath with a little present.

While much of Franco’s characterisation can be read as sly digs at the attempt to attain a hyper-violent and compensatory form of masculinity, arguably the most revealing, and perhaps some of the most moving displays and interactions between differing understandings of masculinity come from Franco himself. In his relationship with his son, a rather scrawny and shy individual compared to his father, Franco reveals how he sees masculinity: what being a man “should be” according to him. When Franco finds out that his son initially cannot join his father’s housebreaking escapades because he’s enrolled on a course in hotel management at college, Franco breaks into hysterics, completely bewildered by the possibility of such a thing existing. His son’s aspirations in life do not confirm with Franco’s opinion of what makes a man, which this leads to a confrontation between the two. In as many words, Franco denounces his relationship with his son. Challenging him to hit him, to punch Franco as hard as he can, the two square off until Franco leaves after delivering some choice words about his son’s supposed physical inadequacy. Seeing the inability to indulge in excessive and unnecessary violence in order to prove one’s masculine dominance as an overall failure in masculinity means that Franco cannot maintain a relationship with his son: his own antiquated masculinity prevents him from doing so. This father-son bond Franco so desperately craves is ultimately unattainable unless he changes his ways, and as Franco himself tragically says when he parts with his family, “the world changes, even if we don’t”.[5]

Perhaps most surprisingly, a change in Franco’s attitudes ultimately does arrive, and it is Spud that functions as a catalyst for it. As the most infantile of the old gang, Spud is the character that we perhaps least expect to make an impact, but he ultimately undergoes the most revolutionary transformation in the film; a transformation that provides an introspective moment for Franco. After being encouraged by Veronika, Spud begins writing out the stories of his life, including the misadventures depicted in the previous film. When reading a segment of Spud’s writing set in old Leith station – a segment borrowed from the textual version of Trainspotting, and in fact the segment that explains the novel’s name (the scene is absent from the 1996 film) – Franco has an epiphany. He realises he has become the same as his father (a character also played by Robert Carlyle). Franco sees that he is failing to maintain a connection with his son by error of being too deeply committed to his notion of masculinity: that violence, physical strength, and the volatility of a man dictates his value. In a way Franco is addicted to this form of masculinity. His arousal in violence, the rush he seems to enjoy when beating random strangers parallels his own father’s addiction to alcohol, these addictions are what inhibits the building of a father-son relationship.

Although this is no particular moment of salvation for Franco, who perhaps sees that he’s gone so far down his chosen path that violent revenge is his only option, he does strive for reconciliation within his family unit before going out to hunt for Mark. In a wonderfully subtle and solemn performance from Robert Carlyle, the audience sees the colossal impact that the memory of his father has on Franco, and how much his father’s decisions impacted his in the future. Through this realisation he comes to accept his son’s ability to decide his own future. Admittedly Franco still does this slightly belligerently, but we genuinely see an emotional depth to him in this moment that has been hidden away throughout both Trainspotting and T2 Trainspotting up to this point. In the process it’s almost as if Franco is beginning to respect an alternative to his own rigid form of masculinity: that hotel management and knocking a doctor unconscious, while not similar, are alternative masculinities, and his own hyper-violent nature is starting to feel distinctly old fashioned.

Violent masculinity has always been such a concrete philosophy for Franco that being confronted with the possibility of an alternative way of being confuses him. However, in reflecting back on his life, in realising his illusions, he breaks free of this toxic masculinity just for a moment. It is here that he can attempt to make amends, to change something in the middle of a mid-life crisis. Bringing such a profound change to bear upon the character of Franco is perhaps one of T2 Trainspotting’s finest and most affecting achievements, and Robert Carlyle’s performance is absolutely exceptional. It is no understatement to say that, compared to Mark or Simon, Franco has a much more profound transformation, having his preconceived notions of masculinity and emotionality completely upended and genuinely developing as a person.

Mark’s mid-life crisis, on the other hand, is much more nihilistic. With his marriage ending after fifteen years, no connection to his true friends, who he betrayed and left in the lurch twenty years previously, and cardio-infraction just six months ago, the sprightly Mark we saw walking down the street at the close of the last film is a distant memory. This is embodied in the change in the “Choose Life” speech. In Trainspotting, Renton originally uses this narrative monologue in two different ways: it first appears as a way to mock those whose existences spanned the ordinary and mundane sphere of life, complete with CDs and electrical can openers, thereby justifying Mark’s comparatively exciting life as a heroin addict, but it is then transformed in the closing scene of the first film into a depiction of the world into which Renton is ready to integrate. In T2 Trainspotting, after twenty years, Mark’s original nihilism has made a resurgence. Veronika asks him to explain the significance of the words “Choose Life” and Mark’s reply, mired by his the failure to live the life he imagined for himself, is a scathing exposé on the faults of modern life. He takes aim at social media and how people desperately cling to connections and spheres of influence, desperate for approval in a world where friends, followers, and selfies determine your value. It is at this point in the film where Ewan McGregor gives a performance that makes the audience feel like Mark has lived every single one of those 46 years, that he has tried and tried to keep his optimism throughout all of them, but that the world has kept hitting him back down. He has become a broken man, resorting to infantile reconciliation with Simon and clinging to the past because he can no longer see a future.

Here, in considering the future, we find ourselves back at Spud. By the end of the film, Franco finds himself on his way back to prison, presumably for a very long time, and Simon and Mark, having been conned by Veronika, laze at home and sardonically disparage Spud’s writing efforts. Despite the hypocrisy of Mark, who advised Spud to replace the skag with another, more productive addiction, it’s unbeknownst to the majority of the main characters as to where Spud’s true gifts lie. While Simon and Mark fail to take Spud’s writing seriously (just as they have never taken Spud seriously), Franco is reinvigorated in the reminiscence possible through reading the old stories and, as mentioned above, it is through reading these that Franco comes to the decision to reconcile with his son. Franco obviously doesn’t completely change and, like the others, he continues to bully and exploit Spud when it suits him. Infantilised and bullied by Franco, Spud becomes emasculated in a certain way, and is used for labour by Simon and Mark in the construction of their “sauna”. In knocking out Franco with that most ubiquitous Trainspotting symbol, a toilet, and thus saving Mark and Simon at the film’s climax, Spud begins to have an emerging authority within the group. His true flourishing eventually comes from a hope of achieving the status of breadwinner for his family via his ability to write.

This development is subtle. Through the rising parallel and marked separation that Spud has from Mark and Simon’s regression back to their teenage selves – most notably demonstrated by Spud’s rejection of heroin when Mark and Simon shoot up after memorialising Tommy – and his brief but integral subplot with Veronika, Spud’s masculinity begins to transform. In rejecting a return to his past, he embraces a new friendship with Veronika, and through this T2 Trainspotting develops an exploration of the changing gender dynamics in modern society. Instead of being treated as a Simon’s, and subsequently Mark’s, trophy, Spud develops a mature and constructive relationship with Veronika, not a girlfriend merely to be “stolen”. While surrounded by characters of Spud’s age, all Veronika’s senior by at least twenty years, they are contrasted with the other characters who are thoroughly warped by misspent adolescences and their preoccupations with their past ways of life. Spud and Veronika step forward as the characters with their eyes firmly fixed on the future. Veronika is a contrasting point to Diane from Trainspotting. Diane reappears as a trained lawyer, another plot point that shows the diminutive progress Mark has made in life, and she proceeds to steal the show in her brief time on screen when she – the person who Mark slept with when she was a teenager – says “she’s too young for you Mark”,[6] advice Mark promptly ignores. Veronika, as it is eventually revealed, wishes to provide and reconnect with her son, and so does Spud. In this relationship, and through their parallels, the preoccupation with the idea of the male breadwinner is debunked. While indeed it may be a pursuit of masculinity to take up this role, Spud, the alternative masculine character in the film, and Veronika, its major feminine voice, stride against this trend completely, proving themselves as the most mature of the misfits.

In the symbolic reconciliation of Spud’s familial unit, his son finally taking notice of him and Gail recognising the skill and grace of his writing, paralleled with Veronika’s reunion with her young son, the two are rewarded for their rather selfless approach within the narrative. While the rest of the characters are either wrapped up in self-indulgent nostalgia, or the emotionally detached commodification of the world around them, or even their addiction to exuberant violence, Spud and Veronika have always had the welfare of those they cared about in their thoughts. Through these endings Veronika is defined as the most cunning of the characters, whose forward-thinking and care for her distant son won out in the end. For Spud, the realisation that being a provider can encompass more than just labour work means an opportunity to have what he’s strived for through the entirety of the film. In kicking his heroin habit and by listening to Veronika’s advice, he’s escaped the prison of his past, and the new aspects he sees in masculinity mean there is hope for Spud’s future, putting him in direct contrast with Mark, Simon, and Franco. By the end of T2 Trainspotting, Mark and Simon have regressed back to their old personas willingly, so as to numb themselves to a world in which they have no future, and Franco’s end, despite his journey of personal revelation, is the same as Begbie’s: condemned to a life behind bars. Spud has outgrown his former friends, and Veronika has willfully exploited them to provide for her family. As the credits roll we see video of high-rises, such as the one in which Spud lives, being demolished. This symbolically echoes Spud’s ability to move on from his youth through finally arriving at a version of masculinity that gives him self worth and probable financial stability. Everyone else is left trainspotting; Spud and Veronika are on the train.

Written by Alex Killeen in collaboration with Max Adams

[1] Trainspotting, directed by Danny Boyle (PolyGram Pictures, 1996), film.

[2] T2 Trainspotting, directed by Danny Boyle (TriStar Pictures, 2017), film.

[3] Trainspotting, directed by Danny Boyle (PolyGram Pictures, 1996), film.

[4] T2 Trainspotting, directed by Danny Boyle (TriStar Pictures, 2017), film.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.