With Oscar-success and Olympic-glory, Danny Boyle has firmly established himself as one of Britain’s most beloved National Treasures. Modestly side-stepping OBE’s and rumours of 007, the versatile director’s latest film is perhaps a response to the acclaim and fuss that surrounds him in recent times. A modestly-budgeted psychological heist-thriller, Trance shows that Boyle is never one to choose the safe or easy option and at the end of the day he loves nothing better than to spin a good yarn.
Trance is a film that works better the less you know about it. With this in mind, please excuse the minimal plot summary: James McAvoy works for a London art gallery, chiefly in charge of the security for priceless paintings when they go to auction. Vincent Cassel is a master-thief who attempts to steal one of these paintings. During the robbery attempt that opens the film, McAvoy manages to hide a painting from Cassel and receives a vicious blow to the head for his trouble. Unfortunately, this results in the McAvoy developing amnesia; seemingly completely unaware of where he stashed the masterpiece. After a quick bout of wince-inducing torture proves fruitless, McAvoy is forcibly sent to hypnotherapist Rosario Dawson, in the hope that she can uncover the costly memory locked somewhere in his mind.
And that’s as much as you need to know, because key to the enjoyment of Trance is trying to unravel the mystery at the same time our characters are attempting to do the same. The entire film is constructed around this device and it drives the plot to the very end. Like most movies concerning memory or dreams, time and space is depicted in a malleable fashion; Boyle gets creative here with unusual camera angles, inspired music choices and unconventional editing all designed to confuse our senses and play with our perceptions as we attempt to figure out exactly what is happening. It’s impressive stuff that looks fantastic and the director even indulges his devious side by punctuating the film with brief moments of nudity and some startling violence, letting us know he is still the same audacious filmmaker who gave us Trainspotting.
The big issue preventing Trance being another sure-fire Boyle classic is an emotional void at its centre. Despite excellent turns from the three leads (particularly a brave performance from Rosario Dawson) the characters seem to exist merely to drive the plot; lacking history or personality. As such we are never fully invested in their fates and although we want the mystery explained, it is purely out of curiosity instead of the satisfying emotional closure it should be aiming for. Additionally the plot, while absorbing, doesn’t always make sense – especially as the film heads towards its outlandish conclusion.
By anyone else’s standards Trance would be one of their best films. When you’re Danny Boyle however, your bar has been set considerably higher and it fails to reach those lofty heights. In terms of back catalogue, it fits more comfortably alongside his earlier work – more Shallow Grave than Slumdog – both in terms of style and sensibility. Challenging and engaging, but not always likeable, it never manages to shake the feeling that Boyle is having fun with a smaller and less ambitious project before something more aspiring comes along.