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
The Pitch: Swan Lake and Madness used to make me think only of this. Not any more…
The Review: At the time of year when awards are being handed out, it’s often useful to consider what qualities a great film embodies. When considering my favourite film of all time last year, I noted that Back To The Future was the master of many films, a science fiction / action / comedy / romance that did all types very well. It’s not a prerequisite for greatness, but if a film can straddle genres so successfully, then it stands a much better chance of being enjoyable. Black Swan is certainly a melding of many different concepts; it is on the surface a ballet film, and certainly the parallels with Swan Lake are clear and simple. Early on, ballet director Thomas (Vincent Cassel) confidently tells everyone in his company that they all know the story of Swan Lake, then proceeds to explain it anyway for the benefit in the audience of anyone who might have come in cold. But this early scene with dancers rehearsing and generally milling in the foreground and background will leave you in no doubt of the context, and director Darren Aronofsky packs the film with ballet detail, from sessions at the physiotherapist to the rituals of preparing ballet shoes for the rigours of performance.
It’s also very much a character drama, and there a number of key players in this drama. The nexus of the drama, on screen almost constantly and into whose mindset we are drawn, is Nina (Natalie Portman), as she replaces Beth (Winona Ryder) at the centre of the ballet company and attempts to get into the dual mindset of the White and Black Swans at Swan Lake’s centre. Her overbearing mother (Barbara Hershey) guides her career, but may be holding her back as much as pushing her on, and her inhibited home live leads Thomas to encourage her to bond with tattooed rebel Lily (Mila Kunis) in order to explore both sides of her psyche. Lily is her exact opposite, almost her doppelgänger, and when Thomas makes Lily Nina’s understudy, her nervousness about the challenge begins to build into a full-blown psychosis.
Black Swan is effectively a coming of age drama, but this is no John Hughes movie; encouraged to the point of sexual harassment in his actions by Thomas, Nina transitions from the virginal and metaphorical White Swan to the dark side of her personality. Natalie Portman is completely fearless in her role, laying bare her emotions and being completely unafraid to explore the more sexual side of the role as well. (And when I say explore, let’s just say that When Harry Met Sally’s got nothing on this one where female vocalisation and inhibitions are concerned.) The whole cast is great, Hershey playing the overbearing mother to perfection and Cassel and Kunis also filling the roles well, but this is Portman’s movie and she slowly but surely takes ownership of the role and the film as it progresses. Aronofsky sees the parallels in the loss of innocence in adolescence as a parallel for Nina’s development and exploration, giving Portman plenty of meat to work with, and the psychosexual aspects add further layers to the drama and, indeed, the horror that form the core of the narrative.
For yes, this is as much a horror movie as anything else, and that will undoubtedly come as a shock to a certain part of the audience who’ve come for the ballet. The psychosexual tension simmers and occasionally bubbles, but there is psychological horror here as well as aspects of body horror that would seem to suggest Aronofsky could be a natural successor to David Cronenberg. It’s subtle and woven through the fabric of the film, and helps to ratchet up the tension at key points. There are parallels to the director’s previous work, and Aronofsky himself has quoted Polanski’s Repulsion, but if anything the film is most reminiscent at points of the Roger Moore film The Man Who Haunted Himself, as Nina sees herself reflected in the faces of those around her and starts to lose her grip on reality. The only criticism that could be levelled at the film is that it’s occasionally a little one note in tone, but what a note and what a tone. Fascinated with the idea of the double and the understudy as the usurper, Black Swan also has a mirror in almost every scene and is full of both physical and metaphorical reflection; when you come to reflect on Black Swan, you’ll realise that Darren Aronofsky and his cast have created something just a little unlike anything you’ve ever seen before, tense, theatrical, racy and provocative; allow your darker side out and it’ll have a fantastic time with this.
Why see it at the cinema: As communal audience experiences go, this one’s a belter; you’ll laugh, you’ll cry, if you’re even slightly prudish you’ll feel very uncomfortable and between those lapping up all the melodrama and those in shock at getting a film they plainly weren’t expecting, there’s sure to be a buzz on the way out the door or at the pub afterwards. The subtle CG embellishments and sweeping stage scenes will be best appreciated on the largest screen you can find, so see it soon while it’s still on the main screens at your multiplex.
The Score: 9/10