Thursday, March 21, 2013

'Trance' (2013) directed by Danny Boyle

Trance is one of those films.  You know the type: a twisty turny psychological adventure where everybody's hiding deep secrets, reality gets well and truly mangled and every 15 minutes or so there's a shocking, mindblowing twist.  I purposefully went into Trance knowing next to nothing about it, save that James McAvoy was in it and that it was directed by Danny Boyle, I hadn't seen any trailers or the original TV version either - this lack of knowledge turned out to be the right decision. Boyle has constructed an intricate jigsaw and then scattered the pieces far and wide.  You can't help but try fitting it all together, aching to see the bigger picture.

I'll be as vague as I can in this review, firstly because being spoiled on this film will sap much of its power, and secondly because (to be perfectly honest) I walked out still a bit confused as to what the hell I'd just seen.  James McAvoy plays Simon, an art auctioneer with a gambling problem.  He gets mixed up with a bad crew, subsequently getting a brain-scrambling bonk on the head.  Tangled up in there is information that will make someone very rich.  So, to hypnotist Elizabeth (Rosario Dawson), who attempts to sort out this unholy mental mess.  From then on the film spins out into a semi-psychedelic whirl that takes in urbane, sensitive gangsters, half-blown away heads, ruined maggoty corpses, magic iPads and the pivotal role of pubic hair in the history of fine art.

James McAvoy as Simon
At times it feels like Boyle, so recently clutched to the bosom of the establishment, is trying to re-establish a sense of danger in his work.  I've been a fan for quite a while, even his less well-regarded films like Sunshine and The Beach (it's not that bad!) tend to be interesting failures rather than utter disasters (although the less said about Vacuuming Completely Naked in Paradise the better).  In Trance he draws us into a sickly, underlit London.  Pools of primary colour fill the screen, and Boyle's characters slide in and out of the darkness.  The effect is a kind of pervasive, creeping sleaze: a neon swamp that our leads are in constant danger of becoming submerged in.

It's interesting to examine how these characters react to the film becoming increasingly stylised.   There are naturally lit scenes taking place in daylight, it's here that things feel safe, anchored firmly to reality, but as the characters becoming ever more braintwisted things start to look increasingly surreal.  It's difficult to say whether the film is reflecting the mental condition of its characters, or vice versa.  Within all this confusion there are loads of instantly indelible images, running the gamut from erotic right through to utterly nauseating.

Rosario Dawson as Elizabeth
Watching this I was reminded me of Eran Creevy's recent stinker Welcome to the Punch, which I saw last week.  The films share many elements, the most prominent being James McAvoy as a man on the edge and a stylish, quasi-futuristic London.  But where Punch stumbles at every conceivable hurdle, Trance succeeds.  As Simon, McAvoy covers a hell of a lot of emotional range - there's a true transformative quality to this performance.  As he recovers bits and pieces of his memory we see him change before our eyes, until the character in the final scenes of the film bears little resemblance to the confused and awkward guy at the start.  

Also seriously impressive are Rosario Dawson and Vincent Cassel.  Dawson is smoothly terrifying, exuding power and control in every scene.  There are quite a few murderous, torturing gangsters in this film, but as far as Trance is concerned, damage to your body can be healed easily enough. Damage to your mind though? That's a little more serious.  Very quickly it's Elizabeth that holds all the cards, weaving a complex web around these unexpectedly vulnerable hard men.  Cassel plays the leader of this small gang, Franck.  The character subverts your expectations of how a gangster should act; we're never quite sure whether his ruthlessness is an act or not.  He's got a surprisingly sensitive streak, repeatedly demonstrating loyalty and kindness that's set in opposition to his behaviour.  Also worthy of mention is Tuppence Middleton, who very quickly makes us feel sympathy for her with very, very little time on screen.

Much of the enjoyment in Trance is anticipation of the 'big reveals', the apocalyptic scenes where everything we've seen so far is turned on its head.  Here the film runs into some difficulty.  There's only so many earth-shattering twists I can take before fatigue sets in.  Trance loses its way a bit in the run up to the climax and when your attention wanders it all begins to look a bit ridiculous.  Like a magician, Boyle is trying to direct you to focus on certain things and away from others, if your engagement in the film wavers you notice that  the dialogue is a maybe little clunky, or, worse, that you realise you don't care to work out whether something is reality or fantasy.  

Trance is a film of mental puzzles, the last one being whether the film is actually any good or not.  I don't know if it's going to be better or worse the second time around, but it counts for something there definitely will be a second viewing.  The film throbs with visual panache; there's a brilliant score by Boyle's longtime collaborator Rick Smith of Underworld and the performances are uniformly impressive.  But it's difficult to wholeheartedly recommend - there are going be people that hate this film - it'd be perfectly reasonable to savage it as a load of pretentious rubbish.  I don't think Trance quite lives up to its lofty ambitions, but it's damn fun watching it try.  I suspect time will be kind to it.


Trance is on wide release from March 27th.

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