Not the movie of the week: Trance
In Britain, people like their National Treasures: largely late-middle-aged men in public life of a certain assumed fluffiness. But director Danny Boyle has gone far beyond that, and at a far younger age. He is (rightly) a National Hero whose Olympic opening ceremony, Isles of Wonder, was a multimedia masterpiece of an unprecedented kind. Before that, there was the small matter of an Academy Award and a triumph for his Frankenstein at London’s National Theatre, and after the Olympics he cemented his heroic status in British hearts and minds by calmly declining a reward in the honours list. So anything new from this remarkable man has to be an event.
What he has given us in Trance is a vertiginously high-concept psychological thriller, head-spinning in its ostensible ambition. It’s a film about the mind and its mysteries, about appearance and reality, truth and untruth. To quote one of the movie’s good lines: “We keep secrets from ourselves and call it ‘forgetting’.”
There is something of Christopher Nolan’s Inception and Memento, and a little of the London gangland locale of David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises. It certainly has a witty and intriguing starting point. But Trance is frankly a disappointment: a strident, chaotic, frantically overcooked film with an almost deafeningly intrusive ambient soundtrack, trowelled on to the movie on a more-is-more basis, sometimes interesting, sometimes as oppressive as a migraine. There is some wild overacting from the male leads, and the elegance of the film’s premise is obliterated by its self-admiring macho violence.
It certainly isn’t a classic caper. Vincent Cassel plays Franck, on unsmiling form as the tough guy who plans to steal a Goya from a London auction house. His man on the inside is Simon (James McAvoy), a young art expert with some financial embarrassments thanks to his gambling problem. But the job does not go as planned and Simon sustains a near-fatal head injury; the gang get away but Simon awakens from his coma to find he can’t remember where he hid the painting.
So Franck has a nifty idea: a hypnotherapist, Dr Elizabeth Lamb (Rosario Dawson), will recover the vital memory from Simon’s unconscious while he is in a trance. Instead of breaking into a bank, these robbers are going to break into someone’s mind. But Dr Lamb may consider that her regular fee is insufficient, given the circumstances; and then there is the question of “transference”. If she lingers in his mind, and he in hers, then can anyone rely on what is being remembered?
So far, so stylish. The setup is interestingly sketched out; the heist is dramatised unusually, without the traditional heart-rate-accelerators on the soundtrack, and McAvoy’s voice-over detailing the history and problems of art theft is coolly managed, with a nice monochrome flashback to the world of 1960s geezers who used only “nerve and muscle”. One problem is not touched on: Who exactly is going to buy the stolen goods?
The film itself is simply trying far too hard. Trance descends into a cauldron of iffy acting and unexciting plot convolutions: crude, extreme, absurd and unsatisfying. With such a consciously exotic idea at the film’s heart, it is silly to ask for plausibility, but there’s an atonal symphony of false notes in the drama, and the volume is turned up very high.
Boyle’s Shallow Grave is perhaps his great “crime” movie, but for me the film that Trance resembles more is his gripping sci-fi Sunshine, the Conradian outer-space drama about a group of astronauts who in some future time are sent out to reignite the dying sun with a nuclear device — and are also, of course, on a perilous inward journey into their own minds. Trance aspires to a similar freaky intensity and psychological disintegration, but it doesn’t have the internal coherence or narrative trajectory; these are sacrificed in favour of muddled plot tangles and jarring, unrewarding displays of brutality. There’s a lot of retina-frazzling style but a frustrating lack of substance.
For all this, Dawson glides calmly and sexily through the movie as Dr Lamb, the enigmatic hypnotist with secrets of her own; she carries off some risky sensual openness and keeps her cool while the male actors are losing theirs. Her presence is a much-needed plus. But Dr Lamb is simply not allowed to have any of the Hitchcockian mystery, subtlety or menace she needs.
Well, even the greatest of directors can falter. This is just a minor blip in Boyle’s remarkable career.