T2: Trainspotting (Boyle. 2017)

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Danny Boyle’s 1996 adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s novel was, and remains, iconic. Acerbic, rebellious, politically aware, heartfelt and joyously witty, it was a brutal shock of energy to British cinema. Fuelled by the high of Cool Britannia, its story of heroin addicts revolting against the restrictions of everyday life was visionary. And now, twenty years on, Boyle has returned to the world and its characters. The resulting creation is not as animated or as powerful as the original, but has an entirely different quality – one of quiet melancholy and bittersweet sentimentality.

T2 sees life after the comedown, bringing the old crew back together. Written by John Hodges again and taking material from Welsh’s follow up novel Porno, the story blends together crime, revenge and frequent trips down memory lane. Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor) chose life, moving to Amsterdam, getting clean and joining the hordes of office workers. But when his plan goes sideways, he returns back to Edinburgh to face old ghosts he betrayed twenty years ago. Here he’s reunited with coke-addled criminal Sickboy (Johnny Lee Miller), psychopath Begbie (Robert Carlyle) and the loveable but fragile Spud (Ewen Bremner). When Sickboy brings Mark into a get rich quick plot involving robbery and brothels, the gang comes crashing back together. What results is an enjoyable drama that sees grey haired men facing their own mistakes and those they mistreated.

It’s a marked change in tone from the original, substituting youthful anger with ageing pessimism and regret. Gone is the quest for blissful freedom. Instead, the film has this sad recurring image of worn men who are aware of their own misspent youth. All of them want what Mark found – a wife, a job and a stable income. There’s a great deal of sadness that they never found what they were looking for. When they were young they couldn’t find the release that they needed, and now that they’re older, they regret that they missed the chance for normality. Spud is central to this, Ewen Bremner using his great talent to show a man that was left behind by everyone else but heroin and his memories. Deeply thoughtful and introspective, T2 shines light on men not looking for freedom but for comfort.

One thing that does remain the same is Boyle’s absolute dedication to style. From Spud falling in slow motion off of a building to Renton being trapped in a glass box bathroom, spectacle is paramount. However, the images do feel like they’ve been crafted with different meaning. While the frenetic visuals of the original represented the character’s drug-fuelled lives, this time they feel like longstanding after effects. They seem to be the hangover from their past lives that won’t quite leave. The effect is something disorientating and poetic. Like the people, the visuals are the same as they were but slightly different.

It’s a film about looking back and pondering. While many will be hoping for something current and devastatingly powerful, this is not that film. T2 is slower, looking at a group from a particular time that never moved on. It doesn’t look at Brexit, post truth and alternative facts, nor is it a cash grab nostalgia adventure. What Boyle has done is return to characters that have been weakened by the rapidly changing scenery and regret the things they once did for kicks. It may not be as era defining or as impacting as it once was, but it’s an honest, funny and welcome reunion.

 

 

I, Daniel Blake (Loach. 2016)

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Political activist, auteur and custodian of Britain’s kitchen sink, Ken Loach has reeled in a second Palme d’Or for his latest parable. A typically savage and angry comment on the inner workings of Britain’s benefits system, I, Daniel Blake is a humanist story about the reduction of people to numbers and blips on a spreadsheet in today’s world. Fuelled by the director’s trademark socialist principles and dedication to realism, it’s an efficient attack on the current Conservative government and a cry for change. It’s an emotional, topical melodrama with all the hallmarks of its esteemed director. However, one can’t help but feel this is just another nuts-and-bolts assembly for him.

Much like his 1966 classic, Cathy Come Home, the new film is a succinct story of the ordinary person being trodden on by forces beyond their control. The ordinary man in question here is a 59 year old woodworker called Dan (Dave Johns). When Dan has a heart attack, he is told he can’t work by his doctors. In the ensuing panic, he finds himself struggling through the bureaucratic mess of Britain’s welfare system. He finds himself being told wrongfully he is ‘fit for work’ by health workers, being bamboozled by countless forms and ignored by the upper echelons of the system. In his confused stagger through a broken system, he finds friendship in young mum Katie (Hayley Squires), realising that human kindness must prevail over the cold hand of the state.

And that’s always something Loach has been fond of. In the harsh world his characters are examples of the gentleness in humanity. Dan is almost insurmountably kind, good-humoured and pleasant, complemented by a solid performance from Hayley Squires, whose character’s struggle to keep afloat never overruns her drive to care for those close to her.

There are points though, when the film feels almost stiflingly ‘Loachian’. When the film begins with a dispassionate healthcare professional arguing with Dan over the phone, there’s this familiar feeling of being ushered efficiently into what is a political rally cry above all else . No doubt a lot of love, care and research has been put in, but this is Loach evoking familiar emotions through familiar methods.  For instance, he and writer Laverty reduce all characters to the usual binary of good and bad, bludgeoning the audience with the idea of the evil, gigantic government against the inherent goodness of the average Joe. Dan’s trips to the application centre depict an emotionally disconnected force of workers who lack any sense of humanity. It’s damning of the system. However, we’ve seen it all before from the creative duo.

That’s not to say that Loach’s films are not necessary and I, Daniel Blake not incredibly current and important, it’s that this sort of social realism by numbers feels to fall short of what might be possible. It’s as if Loach is the man shouting through loudspeakers at a Jeremy Corbyn rally. The messages may be powerful and their sentiments true, but the form has become a little redundant and blinding amid the noise. This social realist melodrama that the director has been doing for years is now a little archaic. The tropes are so recognisable that the impact he may want is simply not there.

I’ Daniel Blake is by all accounts, a necessary film. It’s a required dissection of a system that has ruined and will continue to ruin lives if not looked at. But it’s hard to escape the feeling that this film is a case of going through the motions, with Loach’s political voice dominating his creative voice and drowning what could be both much more innovative and impacting.