The Pitch: Games of the mind.
The Review: Danny Boyle, hero of the Olympic Games and now almost a socialist icon for apparently turning down a knighthood. You could be forgiven for forgetting he also makes films, being responsible for some of the most iconic British films of the last two decades. He’s certainly a contemporary film maker, and from his pioneering work with cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle in pushing digital films to the soundtracks laced with the likes of Underworld, Boyle’s never been afraid to push boundaries or to keep pace with the times. He could almost be accused of retreating into his comfort zone with Trance, for not only are Mantle and Underworld’s Rick Smith on board once more, but screenwriter John Hodge – responsible for Boyle’s first two films, and two of his greatest triumphs, in Shallow Grave and Trainspotting – is also back on scripting duties. But Boyle’s often been left at the mercy of his screenwriters, heavily dependent on the quality of the writing, so it’s understandable he’d want to try to replicate the success of those early collaborations.
There are clear parallels with Shallow Grave in the central trio of characters, Hodge once again exploring themes of power and control between three central characters, two male and one female. In Trance’s case, we’re first introduced to Simon (James McAvoy), who’s caught up in a robbery at the auction house where he works. When he confronts the gang leader Franck (Vincent Cassel), Franck lashes out and a blow to the head causes Simon to forget details of the robbery, crucially including where the painting’s disappeared to when Franck ends up with just the empty frame post-robbery. Running out of ideas when attempts to intimidate and torture the info out of him fail, Franck sends Simon to hypnotherapist Elizabeth (Rosario Dawson) in the hope of unlocking the secrets in Simon’s fractured mind, but Elizabeth begins to find more than any of them bargained for.
Shallow Grave was concerned with the moral implications of simple greed, and that sense of greed is also heavily prevalent in Trance. Hodge’s script (based on an original TV movie by Joe Ahearne, who also collaborated with Hodge here) is more keen than Shallow Grave was to misdirect and obfuscate, and the clean lines of Boyle and Hodge’s first team-up are replaced with something altogether more brittle and hazy. The clearest parallels are not in the roles of the three central characters – although McAvoy’s cocksure young auctioneer reminiscent of Ewan McGregor’s journalist Alex in Grave and Rosario Dawson exhibits a similar strength to Kerry Fox’s doctor Juliet – or even in the sense of identity born out of the city location (London here, Edinburgh there) but in the sense of shifting loyalties and absence of trust. The big difference lies with the former film’s ability to empathise with any of the three characters at various points, no matter whether they were charming, obnoxious or just plain deceitful, but sadly Simon, Franck and Elizabeth are all cold, heartless ciphers who make it impossible to connect with any of them.
While the characterisation is a let-down, the plot does take a number of satisfying twists and turns, but for once Boyle compounds the errors of his screenwriter rather than compensating for them by falling into a number of genre conventions of both psychological and body horror. It’s as if Boyle can’t help but put up giant neon signs, fond of both the literal neon gaudiness of his post-Olympian London and allowing that to seep into his plotting with metaphorical signposts indicating “Rug about to be pulled here” and “This isn’t what you think it is.” Sadly it leaves Trance crucially lacking in surprises most of the time and the details of the denouement are more easily pieced together. Some might find the occasional horror imagery difficult to stomach; having no such difficulties myself I was more troubled by such difficulties as the amount of screen time the no-dimensional hoods backing up Franck are given. The plot might be the only thing that makes Trance worth seeing, but once you’ve worked out where its headed you won’t need a hypnotherapist, as Trance is eminently forgettable all on its own. Better luck next time, Sir Danny.
Why see it at the cinema: Anthony Dod Mantle’s crisp cinematography remains at the forefront of the digital artform and Boyle can still compose an image, even if he has gone slightly over the top with the Dutch angles.
What about the rating: Rated 15 for strong bloody violence, gore, sex, nudity and strong language. Or, as the teenage boy inside me would call it, the Grand Slam. While everything here is typical Boyle, it’s never quite pushed as far as his early career and 15 feels right, if just a shade disappointing and commercial.
My cinema experience: Just over half full at the Cineworld in Cambridge for an Unlimited preview showing, with a nice if somewhat half-hearted intro from Danny Boyle himself. Still, it’s nice he made the effort. Tucked away in one of the smaller screens, but one apparently with decent sound and projection.
The Corridor Of Uncertainty: Thanks to it being an Unlimited preview showing, just trailers and the latest Kevin Bacon EE advert, it was just a minimalist thirteen minutes before the Danny Boyle intro. If only all films were like that…
The Score: 6/10