The UK’s latest National Treasure® Danny Boyle has certainly been pushing the marketing of his new movie Trance pretty hard, appearing on just about media outlet, radio show, TV programme and movie related podcast to hawk his mental East London crime thriller, I’d be slightly sick of him if he wasn’t such a genuinely likeable and avuncular fellow whom always energetically seems to love to chat movies. I’ve seen him a few times around town, most recently running into him at the foyer of the BFI some thirty minutes after a 127 Hours Q&A where he was still chatting with fans and posing for photos, completely on his own without an Oscar winners entourage or a phalanx of tinted window BMW’s humming outside the venue, waiting to spirit him away to his next promotional tryst. When I read in a lengthy interview in this months Sight & Sound that he turned down a knighthood for his Olympic contributions my respect magnified dramatically, that’s a man who walks the walk and talks the talk, and his rather refreshing comments about the commercialisation of the enterprise was also quite refreshing, when public figures are usually content to tow the party line and acquise to the orders of their overseers. When it comes to his movies though proceedings get more problematic, sure (cliché alert) Trainspotting was just the shot in the arm the UK film industry needed after wallowing in the costume drama ghetto for two decades of tedious class obsessed histrionics but Boyle’s really only ever made three star movies, he’s never made anything genuinely ‘great’ which lodges in the memory and will get enshrined in the history books, he’s more a marathon runner who consistently delivers the goods than a wildcard Ken Russell type who can veer from genius to loony as project follows project. When I heard that his latest effort was shot in my local manor of East London and would be a head scratching psychological thriller eyebrows were raised, this is a genre I love when successfully delivered, the films being rewatchable cinematic puzzles with a cheeky line in misdirection and illusion, not to mention the heist/criminal backdrop which is always apt to embezzle my affections.
Meet Simon (a discretely bland James McAvoy), the junior assistant curator at a swanky Knightsbridge auction house, a young chap who has unfortunately got himself into a rather regrettable spot of bother. Being a degenerate on-line gambler Simon is up to his weasely eyes in debt, with a brutal beating or worse on the cards he hatches a desperate plan to facilitate the theft of the £25 million Goya McGuffin The Storm on the Sea of Galilee after throwing his lot in with a quartet of violent thugs led by Franck (Vincent Cassell) who has agreed to clear his overdraft and finance his proposal. When the scheming plot goes awry and Simon’s double cross results in him suffering from an extreme concussion he awakes with amnesia, a potentially convenient ruse to prevent him from divulging where the painting was stashed after the frantic robbery. After torture yields no results Franck orders Simon to attend local hypnotist Elizabeth’s (Rosario Dawson, smoky not smouldering) trance inducing sessions to see if her tampering can mentally unearth the secretive, buried location, and before you can waft a cigarette lighter at a femme fatale nursing a phallic cigarette the film descends into psychic chaos, as flashforwards and backwards spin a psychedelic diorama which questions everything that Simon is seeing and believing, and the ulterior motives of everyone is thrown into disarray….
Trance pivots on a sliced, confetti structure culled from the work of Boyle’s self-proclaimed hero and countryman Nicholas Roeg, and whilst it doesn’t lack a shaky ambition its delirious reach exceeds its frenetic grasp. As you’d expect from Boyle it has a pulsing pace metronomed to Boyle’s deft ear for the spells of London’s urban musical warlocks, but like Simon’s fractured memory it falls to pieces upon introspection, dropping short of the interest threshold required to ignite a second viewing. The movie was shot prior to the Olympics and edited after the ceremony closed, thus necessitating a years break in artistic attention, and this diversion shows on-screen as even amongst the manufactured chaos one senses a film slipping away from its engineers, it’s a constellation with no narrative centre, a flashy sports car which isn’t throughly unattractive but fails at the intellectual MOT. McAvoy has never been screen presence with much heft and this density is conspicuous by its absence, and Rosario Dawson feels out of her element as the American admidst the Europeans, the scenes were she leads group therapy sessions with these hardened criminals is quite simply ludicrous. Normally a film devoid of any sympathetic characters wouldn’t be a problem, heck in some parts (Menagerie included) that’s even a boon, but this parade of ghosts doesn’t encourage any real anticipation in what is to come, and the altering of perceptions results in mild, impatient tedium rather than transcendental revelation.
Not wishing to repeat myself and my Side Effects observations but Boyle also scribbles events out over a checkerboard of dutch angles, distressed framing and incorporating plenty of reflections from mirrors, surfaces, and the cool soaring edifices of Canary Wharf, speciously adjuring the mentally misaligned status of his characters, I don’t know if he and Soderbergh were cribbing from the same ‘filmmakers guide on how to subconsciously suggest your scenes are not entirely honest’ but it does keep the visual DNA of the film compelling and attentive, and this might prove to be a phrenic double bill in years to come. Like much of Boyle’s work there is a breathless energy to the colourful fragments and a breathless energy to the on-screen kinetics, as one deduces Trance could breathlessly could keep pace with Usain Bolt conducting his Speedy Gonzales impression. As a local I’ll admit it was fun seeing the likes of Poplar and Blackwall up on the big screen, film locations roughly ten minutes walk from the Cineworld that I caught the film, I know these places intimately through work and commuting over the past few years, and it’s always odd to see the familiar balloon to the warped dimensions of the silver screen. The final diagnosis seems to be that the symptoms persist and Boyle’s ailments will continue, with more treatment on the script and some chemo on his character definitions he might one-day cure this perpetual malady, this regrettable syndrome of pretty good but not great pictures;
If you remain anxious and would like to lose yourself in a world of shattered narratives then get your shrink to prescribe Performance or Point Blank, then yes of course there’s early Chris Nolan or Seconds, The Game or perhaps The Machinist, or Primer or The Usual Suspects and The Terminal Man, casting our minds back further we imagine Spellbound and Repulsion, or indeed much of Hitchcock’s or Polanski’s fevered cinematic disturbances, or my favourite paranoid placebo The Parallax View. Now if you’ll excuse me time’s up and this session is ended, one has some sun cream and shades to buy as tonight it’s time to go spring breaking……