Review: Trance (2013)

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Directed by – Danny Boyle
Written by – Joe Ahearne & John Hodge
Based on the TV Movie of the same name by Joe Ahearne
Starring – James McAvoy, Rosario Dawson, Vincent Cassel, Danny Sapani, Matt Cross & Wahab Sheikh

The man responsible for relentlessly grim films like Shallow Grave and Trainspotting has never struck me as the type of bloke who wants to be known as a “national treasure”. Such a title doesn’t sit well with the man’s career, his politics or his background and he seems much too grounded and down to Earth to ever want such a label bestowed upon him. Yet, through no real fault of his own, that is exactly what has happened to Danny Boyle ever since we got to witness the spectacular Olympic opening ceremony that he choreographed less than 18 months ago.

In the wake of his spell as a victim of near universal praise (something none of his films has ever really received, not even Trainspotting), Boyle’s return to cinema sees him go back to his roots with a cynical and pessimistic thriller with which he – as the director – has a great deal of unrestrained fun. Trance – an adaptation of Joe Ahearne’s television movie of the same name – seems to be Boyle’s response to all of last year’s praise, with its flashy direction, its barmy story and its utter refusal to let logic rein it in or slow it down. In fact, it sometimes feels like the cinematic equivalent of Boyle screaming “I’m still edgy!” at you over and over again until you start to remember – much like this film’s central character – that his career hasn’t always been completely solid. As the film jumps from one batshit scene to the next, as the good guys start to turn bad and as the central themes of angst, revenge and greed begin to rear their ugly heads, you get a stark reminder of what it is about Boyle’s work that you really enjoy.

For me, Trance follows in the footsteps of almost all of Boyle’s output – with the exception of the near flawless Shallow Grave – in that it is one half of a great film and one half of a mediocre film. It begins as a heist film in which Simon (McAvoy; X-Men: First Class, The Last King of Scotland), acts as an inside man at the theft of a priceless painting. However, Simon turns on his boss Franck (Cassel; La Haine, Black Swan) and attempts to steal the art for himself, only to suffer a blow to the head and forgot where he has hidden it. After Franck forces him to see a therapist – Elizabeth (Dawson; Death Proof, Sin City) – in order to remember the painting’s location, Simon begins to discover secrets about his past that he had long forgotten. Things come to a head when Elizabeth wants in on the job and, before long, neither the characters nor the audience can be sure who can and can’t be trusted.

Trance - Vincent Cassel

For the first hour or so, I was utterly enthralled by the story. Trance starts brilliantly with a “set-up” sequence that is quick, witty and thoroughly engaging, in which the initial pieces of the puzzle are put into place and in which central themes of the story are established. From there on in the film dazzles as Boyle slowly but skilfully establishes the sense of uncertainty that drives much of the action, teasing the audience with a tight thriller that is brimming with tension and mystery. He litters the earlier sequences with clues, false steps and red herrings, thus providing you with an intriguing mystery to mull over in your head, while simultaneously creating a film that looks and feels incredibly stylish.

Then, alas, it all starts to go wrong… You see, the main problem with <i>Trance</i> is that the first hour drives the plot into such a deep corner that the final act has no feasible way of providing you with a decent or logical solution to the mystery. The conclusion – which somehow manages to be both obvious and utterly absurd – is a huge let down because it not only requires a few suspensions of disbelief too many but it also introduces new information that we weren’t given even the faintest clue about in the first two acts. Part of the explanation works quite well but the two major twists – the woman in the car and the nature of the relationship between Simon and Elizabeth – are highly contrived. Worse still, the twist involving Elizabeth manages to be both obvious, in that you assume she’s involved somehow, and stupid, in that her involvement is unrealistic and hugely overplayed, so that just left me feeling doubly annoyed.

What we have then is a classic example of a film where the central concept is far stronger than the final execution. For me, the film either needed to explore its characters’ pasts in more detail or it needed to provide a more feasible explanation for what was happening. In this respect it manages to be both too short and too long. There’s a great story hidden amongst all the dreck but, after such a great start, it becomes lost in a final act that is more confused than it is confusing. There are still some fantastic sequences (such as the moment when one of the characters is petrified) and I like the fact that Boyle wasn’t afraid to crank the wackiness up to a whole new level but for me Trance is a bit of a wasted opportunity.

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Nevertheless, none of this is to say that Trance isn’t a decent film. The performances from the three leads are superb, especially from McAvoy who is perfect as the confused and fractured anti-hero, and the characterisation is pretty strong. It is Boyle, however, who is the real star here. His direction is slick, confident and assured and he gets to the shallowness of the enterprise quite spectacularly. His film looks and sounds excellent and even when the plot is at its most impenetrable it’s hard not to get sucked in by the beauty of the thing. For the first hour at least Boyle manages to juggle style with substance just perfectly and it’s just a shame that the last half-an-hour or so drags things down quite so much.

Trance is a fun ride that has a lot to offer but it’s let down by dodgy exposition, a creaky story and a lack of closure at the end. It’s not Boyle’s best effort – not by a long way – but it’s still nice to see him doing edgy and interesting cinema again and, despite all of its problems, it’s well worth watching if only for the stunning direction and cinematography. Just don’t set your expectations too high like I almost did…


Review also posted on Letterboxd