While the four leads give a strong ensemble performance, there are also some valuable lessons in this film about the intangible depth that preparation can bring to a screen role.
Without the structure offered by theatre rehearsal, and the fillip provided by the approval of the director and other actors, it can be hard for screen actors to do an equivalent amount of preparation. (In fact I believe that even greater preparation is needed because of the intense scrutiny of the camera.) And, let’s be honest, there’s a leap of faith required that the time and emotional energy spent, alone, developing a character’s backstory will pay off.
The performances of Ewen Bremner and Jonny Lee Miller stand out in ways that suggest extensive emotional preparation. (I’ll try to write about them without spoiling the plot) I worked with Ewen on the very first piece of film I directed, when he was in his early twenties, and he was the actor who stood out for most people who saw it. So he started his career with the kind of screen presence that we’d all love to have. But there is a weight and maturity to his performance in T2 that is really moving. Yes, there are scenes of his Narcotics Anonymous group that underscore his ongoing struggle with addiction, but even before these, when he says baldly “I’m a junkie” you can sense the painful personal history.
Similarly Jonny Lee Miller has a richly imagined strength of feeling about Renton’s betrayal of him twenty years previously. The sense of long-nurtured hurt and resentment and rage is palpable. And the love too. When he announces his desire for revenge to Veronika (an excellent performance by Anjela Nedyalkova) you know his feelings are not as simple as he describes and it’s no surprise when things don’t work out as planned, not for plot reasons, but because of the complexity of his emotions.
Contrast them with Ewan MacGregor’s Renton talking about his life in Amsterdam. Now, I like Ewan MacGregor and his likeability carries the film forward perfectly well. But if I have a criticism it’s that I’ve no real sense of how the intervening years have been for Renton because, I suspect, the actor hasn’t much imagined them. As Judi Dench once said “acting is not what you say, it’s what you don’t say” and both Bremner and Lee Miller make the gaps between the words richly eloquent. But when MacGregor speaks about his life in Amsterdam and his divorce, do I have a sense of his relationship with his wife and job? Not really. I read a print interview recently with MacGregor in which he said he’s not one for a lot of preparation. Well maybe a bit more here would have been worthwhile.
Meanwhile Begbie, surprisingly, is almost light relief. Yes, his thirst for vengeance provides the threat to our hero(es). But the eviscerating psychopathy Robert Carlyle brought to the original – a man driven by some implacable inner demons – has been replaced by something that’s more comic than scary. I understand Robert Carlyle sometimes gives his characters a secret – something he shares with no one, not even the writer or director – and that in the original Begbie’s secret was that he’s gay. If this is true, it makes so much sense. His terrifying and unpredictable lurches into psychotic aggression were his response to his own unwelcome sexual attraction to a man. (I hope it goes without saying that I’m not suggesting this is anything other than the specific self-loathing homophobia of one character) The Begbie on display here has no such inner conflict. My guess is that this is a deliberate choice by Carlyle and Danny Boyle and it certainly works, thanks to the actor’s skill in walking the line between menace and buffoonery.
But the acting plaudits belong to Bremner and Lee Miller. Whenever Spud talks about Gail and “wee Fergus”, you fill in the blanks of the last 20 years, imagining just how life has been for him and how it has impacted those he loves: the disappointment, the despair, the let-downs. Shirley Henderson, who plays Gail, is an in-demand actress and I doubt she’d have signed up for a part with so little screen time, so I suspect there were other scenes teasing out the tragedy of her and Fergus’s relationship with Spud, but that Ewen’s performance was so vividly imagined they ended up on the cutting room floor. It’s the very opposite of the void I felt when watching Dave Johns in I, Daniel Blake. Spud has so evidently lived these bad times that there’s no need to dramatise them.
On the Graham Norton show, Jonny Lee Miller made a jokey reference to his own bitterness at how the intervening years have been for him. I have no idea whether this was simply self-deprecation or an unintentionally-revealed truth. But if it is true – it’s certainly easy to imagine someone who was married briefly to Angelina Jolie having regrets - then he has bravely channelled these feelings into a wonderful performance. And if he is a happy, contented soul off-screen then it’s all the more credit to him for imagining the passage of time so richly.
For what does an actor draw on to create characters as fully developed as these? It’s either imagination – which I explore in Section 3 of my book – or personal experience or, most often, a mixture of both.
However they have approached it, both Ewen Bremner and Jonny Lee Miller have put in the time to create something with real depth and, to my mind, awards recognition would have been entirely justified.