Review: Trance

Dr Elizabeth Lamb (Rosario Dawson) has some things to show you
Dr Elizabeth Lamb (Rosario Dawson) has some things to show you

Kinetic. If nothing else, Danny Boyle’s films are always this. There’s a forward striving momentum to both the man and his work which has made him something of a charmed poster-boy for UK filmmaking over the past two decades. Since Trainspotting his movie choices have set him globe-trotting, even breaching the Earth’s orbit and hurtling into space for Sunshine. He’s stacked up a roster of well-liked films in a relatively short space of time, and still shoe-horned in a feted stage production of Frankenstein and, oh yes, the Olympic ceremony last year. The man just doesn’t keep still.

Trance, his latest film, befits this tireless spirit completely. From minute one it’s in sprint-mode, as though the end credits are the finishing line at the (insert sporting event of your choice). No mood-setting titles before the action, no character-building before the first domino falls. Bang! We’re off.

I guess I’d better keep up with him then. Trance sees Boyle returning to the UK, to London, and to that old chestnut that’s served him well in the past; a group of people all after the same prize who will readily turn on one another to win out. In this instance it’s a painting worth millions. Goya’s “Witches In The Air”. Enter Simon (James McAvoy), untrustworthy narrator and auction house security man who has set up an inside job in order to offset some hefty gambling debts. Inevitably things don’t go to plan; Simon is struck on the head and loses his memory – as well as the painting. His co-conspirators, led by Franck (Vincent Cassel), are understandably aggrieved. They want that painting. But to get the painting, they’re going to need those memories. Which leads us to hypnotherapist Dr Elizabeth Lamb (Rosario Dawson).

From here Trance shifts gears somewhat, whilst never giving up on that relentless forward momentum. Elizabeth soon figures out what Simon and his pals are up to and wants her own share. The film steams forward, into Simon’s hypnotherapy sessions, as questions start piling up and reality begins to bend. Have Elizabeth and Simon met before? Why is she so keen to fall in with a bunch of criminals? Who is the girl in the red car from Simon’s subconscious? Trance gleefully rabbitholes into a free-fall of flexible reality and uncertainty.

We’ve been here before. Movies about memory loss and secrets, though comparatively few and far between, almost feel cliché. But Trance is less about the eternal sunshine of the spotless mind as it is about the glamorous midnight of the guilty one. This is an inviting mash-up of the neo film-noir and the grab-the-swag thriller.

Boyle paints all of this in frenzied collage (Dawson is even introduced in collage), and his brushwork is exemplary. There’s nothing he won’t throw into the mix; Dutch angles aplenty, shifting perspectives and the evocation of a slick, modern London. Trance is bathed in affluence. It looks like a full-page advert for a high-end product. Glossy, desirable, cool. Like Boyle himself, the movie shows no intention of slowing down, and as such keeps a firm grip on the audience’s attention even as the rug is pulled further out from beneath us.

Does it all work? No. It’s not perfect by any means. This restless pace, though invigorating, means that we never quite settle down long enough to invest in any of the characters. Because of this conspicuous lack of depth, Trance never quite achieves the profound sense of immersion that the films of David Lynch or even Christopher Nolan achieve when paddling the same waters. Like those full-page ads, it’s all surface. Part of this probably can’t be helped. The whole film hinges on reveals and fake-outs meaning that for it to work we need to keep second-guessing what the characters are capable of, what their motives are. Uncertainty is key. If we knew these people for sure, we’d riddle out all the secrets.

Trouble is – and Boyle seems drawn to this fairly often – the more we learn about these characters, the less we like them, until you need a scorecard to figure out who there is to actually cheer for. Simon, Elizabeth and Franck all muddy the waters of morality. By the end, has the film even got a protagonist? One reveal in particular may leave viewers with a bitter taste in the mouth as our allegiances cannily swerve.

So Trance becomes more of a conjuring trick. Full credit to Boyle then for audaciously pulling it off. The climax delivers well, throwing in a decent, suspenseful set-piece before managing to at once tie things up into something approaching sense whilst at the same time leaving questions as to what was truth and what was illusion.

Performances across the board are good. If they suffer its down to Boyle and editor Jon Harris stealing the show. At it’s worst, Trance can feel like a 100 minute montage. As such not everything sticks, an idea or two clunk in the heady rush to get everything onto the screen. The hit to miss ratio however leaves Boyle with little to be really ashamed of.

Personally speaking, I’ve found much of Boyle’s output uneven at best, and in recent years particularly lacking. And though some of the twists and turns here are awkward or unpleasant, the ride itself was a persistently engaging one, making this the most enjoyable film of his since Trainspotting that I’ve seen. However it will not please all, and those who loved Slumdog‘s (compromised) happy ending may find Trance‘s close queasily ambivalent and lacking.

The bottom line is that Trance is an above average British crime thriller with enough twists and turns to keep you involved and enough resolution to leave you satisfied. The route itself might be haphazard and picking beneath the surface may yield little result, but taken on a face-value Trance is an attractive proposition.

Score:  3.5

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