One of the most fascinating things about Danny Boyle is he is a man who doesn't seem to visit the same genre twice, ensuring that you're never entirely sure what to expect from him next. Off the big screen, it's been a big couple of years for the director, what with that Olympic Ceremony, and his foray into theatre with his excellent adaptation of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. During that period, he managed to set aside some time to direct a film; that film is Trance, bursting on to the scene with the same dark, twisted energy that announced Boyle as a startling new film-maker with Shallow Grave, nineteen years ago.
The parallels with Shallow Grave don't end there, following the (mis)fortunes of three lead characters, tied together by a central MacGuffin. In the earlier film, the events revolved around three friends and a briefcase of money, but in Trance, its three relative strangers who become linked to a valuable painting, Goya's Witches in the Air. Simon (James McAvoy) is the inside man, an art auctioneer with a gambling problem that he can't afford to pay off. Seeing the painting as his way out, he enlists the help of gangster Franck (Vincent Cassel) to steal it, but during the heist, the painting goes missing. Simon is the only person who knows the location but unfortunately, a blow to the head ensures he forgets where he has stashed the painting. Despearate to get his painting back, Franck enlists the help of an enigmatic hypnotherapist, Elizabeth (Rosario Dawson) to delve into Simon's mind and help him retrieve the memory.
The heist itself is impressively staged, with a thudding soundtrack from Underworld's Rick Smith to help the proceedings while the introductory monologue from Simon allows a few neat jokes to be made at the auction house's expense. It also sets the tone for the rest of the film in terms of its aesthetics; everything is bright and shiny, yet with a darker, grittier undercurrent that comes more to the fore as the proceedings continue. Boyle has always showcased his settings well and London in Trance is no different, offering a background in hues of blue, orange and red to create that glossy sheen. The screenplay by Joe Ahearne and John Hodge builds upwards from the heist, layering scenes based in reality and Simon's mind upon each other, with hidden meanings revealed brilliantly later.
At first, certain signifiers make it quite easy to be able to distinguish reality from Simon's trances but once those lines become blurred in Simon's own head, it does too for the audience. At first, this is well-utilised by Boyle to obfuscate the situation for the audience, ensuring that you are completely involved in trying to decipher meanings and symbols. It is baffling, mesmerising and infuriating all at once and for the most part, Boyle handles it well, utilising all of these things at once to create a palpable tension. It is always refreshing to watch a film that credits its audience with intelligence but unfortunately, sometimes it does go too far and errs on the side of alienating, dragging you out of the scene as you try desperately to figure out what is happening.
It also isn't helped by the fact that, while all ridiculously good-looking, the three lead characters just aren't all that likeable. The actors are all excellent, but McAvoy and Cassel are outshone by Dawson's calm and measured performance as the enigmatic hypnotherapist. Trusted with far more to do than any film I've seen her in previously, Dawson's Lamb runs the gamut of archetypes, from femme fatale to victim and everything in between. However, there's only so much about these characters that you can relate to in their beautiful apartments, rich lifestyles and soaring careers.
Then there is the dizzying final act that redeems the small flaws of the film. Like a well-placed punch to the stomach, the denouement is not designed to knock you out but will definitely cause you to stagger. As the three leads shift and change, so too do your loyalties until you're not entirely sure who you're meant to be rooting for or even if you are meant to root for anyone at all. After various twists, about-turns and shifts in direction, the big reveal not only packs a narrative punch, but also an emotional one with a motivation that inspires both sympathy for one character and revulsion for another. Whether you've predicted this outcome or not (I did to a certain extent), it can't be denied that the performances of the three leads keep you engrossed whilst Boyle focuses the camera in on them so much that you don't really have much of a choice.
Despite its flaws, Trance is a labyrinth of a film and a work of great imagination. It doesn't quite match the heights of Boyle's previous work but it is entertaining and puzzling enough to keep you interested. As you fall deeper into trance upon trance, you'll find yourself questioning what is reality and what is all in Simon's head and the film deserves a second watch, if only to see if you can figure it out.
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