Master of the combination genre film Danny Boyle is at it again with his first post-Olympic opening ceremony film Trance. One part psychological thriller, one part gangster heist, it even contains smatterings of action and body shock horror. The plot revolves around a young art house auctioneer Simon (James McAvoy) who is part of a plot to steal Francisco Goya’s masterpiece Witches in the Air. During the heist, things go wrong and Simon is struck in the head by Franck (Vincent Cassel) which causes him to suffer amnesia and he cannot remember where he has hidden the painting. Employing hypnotherapist Elizabeth (Rosario Dawson) to open up his memories, Simon slowly begins to piece together what happened as well as unlocking some other, more startling memories from his past.
Fans of Boyle’s previous work will notice more than a passing resemblance in tone to his first work Shallow Grave. Focusing on ideas of greed, human nature and the relationship between its three central protagonists, Trance goes a step further, and like Christopher Nolan’s mind-bending masterpiece Inception explores memory and our relationship to it and the pitfalls of trusting it. As the action unfolds it becomes less and less clear whether what we are seeing is the truth or just another recreation of one of the characters in the trance state. At first this is an interesting puzzle, but as the film drags on slightly it becomes more of a distracting nuisance than the intriguing piece of art it could have been.
Boyle’s keen eye for detail remains carefully in place and some striking visual shots from odd angles to help continue the dream state logic of the film. The ambient trance soundtrack from regular collaborator Rick Smith from Underworld provides further proof that other than Tarantino, no one picks better music for his films than Boyle and while the narrative may become a little overblown, all the elements for a classic film are in place. So why does it feel like a misstep from the man who providing such masterpieces of modern cinema like Trainspotting, Slumdog Millionaire and 28 Days Later….
Sadly, and strangely it is the performances of two of the central characters that let Trance down most. James McAvoy and Vincent Cassel, two vastly talented actors in the right role seem like natural fits for Simon and Franck, One an out-of-his-depth gambling-addicted ‘normal’ guy, the other an arrogant, charismatic French thief. Yet both give uneven and sometimes overblown performances that distract more than they engage. Thankfully Rosario Dawson is on hand to give the standout performance as the enigmatic Elizabeth. It is a raw and challenging role that she grasps and runs with, outstripping her co-stars and grounding the action with some character, charm and engagement.
Slickly produced, stylishly gritty and sometimes gory, Trance could so easily have been placed into the category of Danny Boyle’s finest work. The overblown nature of the combination of psychological thriller and heist film cause some problems, as do some of the acting, however the biggest let down is the sense that Boyle himself has already covered a lot of the themes before in previous work, and to a far greater quality. Shallow Grave hangs over Trance like a witch in Goya’s painting and the inevitable comparison is not favourable to the newcomer. Still, even the best directors make the occasional mistake and if this is the worst of Danny Boyle, he’s still better than most.