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Trance – Who’s Who and What’s What Mind games with Danny Boyle


Rosario Dawson - Trance


Trance – Danny Boyle

Not all banknotes can be forgeries. A forgery can only be passed off as real against the background of a viable currency which requires that most notes in circulation are genuine.

Much the same logical limitation applies to the central dramatic device that lies at the heart of the twisty plot that both intrigues and at times irritates us in this high-concept psychological thriller from Danny Boyle. This involves ambiguously false memories and unreliable recollections. Simon, (James McAvoy) is an Art auctioneer at an up-market Sotheby-cum-Christies. In a neatly sparse pre-titles opening sequence which Simon narrates, the sophistication of modern security systems over the good old, blag old days sets up the heist to come. It soon becomes clear that the target is a Goya retailing at a cool 25 million quid: no discounts, nectar points or BOGOF’s available.

The supposedly infallible security procedure which is pretty laughably unconvincing by the way, breaks down and a gang of four led by Vincent Cassel’s Franck, with apparently consummate ease, prevent Simon from posting the Goya down a security shute. Franck whacks Simon into a coma in the process only to have his crest badly fallen when the stolen piece proves to be merely a frame – sans canvas, sans paint, sans Goya.

These early scenes are pacy, tense and intriguing; leaving us engagingly uncertain of who is doing what and why. When Franck and his Chummys find they have in a manner of speaking, been framed, suspicion naturally falls on Simon who was the only person to touch the painting from the moment the heist began.

So far so not-too-bad; but pretty standard fare until we find that apparently Simon’s regained consciousness includes no knowledge or memory of the robbery or indeed of what happened to the painting.

When the gang’s radical manicure involving the removal of nails with a pair of pliers fails to persuade Simon to come clean – about the painting, not his nails – Franck is forced to accept that his amnesia is genuine; thus posing a rather different challenge, the solution to which needs something more subtle than a pair of pliers.

Cue sexy hypnotherapist Dr Elizabeth Lamb operating at the dodgy end of Harley Street. Acting on the ludicrous premise of consulting a Harley street specialist to find his lost car keys; with the gang listening in through a body wire, Doctor Liz tries to unlock Simon’s mind to find out where the Goya’s gone.

So Act I’s pretty good: we don’t know quite what’s really going on or the nature of the relationships leading up to the heist. But Joe Ahearne and John Hodge’s screenplay then starts playing fast and loose with actual events, falsely remembered elements and hypnotically-suggested sequences. We seem to be surrounded by what we might, by analogy call – loads of duff banknotes. The trouble with devices like unreliable narrators, false memories and hypnotically induced illusions is that the over-use of the device sacrifices the great fun of being willingly persuaded to believe something that isn’t true; for the impatient distrust of everything and everyone.

It is true that Boyle manages to extract an absorbing visual tone from these accumulating ambiguities and mis-directions but while atmosphere and tone can enhance our appreciation of a coherent narrative, it is no substitute for one.

Rosario Dawson’s erotically charged performance as Dr Liz is very watchable especially as here too we find that not everyone is what they seem. But both the sex and violence in this middle section seem to be grafted on rather than flowing naturally from the established characters. In fact it is another unsatisfactory consequence of the unreliable narrative that we never quite get to identify, for or against, with any of the characters.

Act III for all its style, atmosphere and occasional tension unwinds into a twist ending the force of which has been undermined in exactly the same way and for the same reasons. It would be very hard, post hoc, to describe what really happened in a way that would make any coherent sense from any of what we eventually discover are the ‘real’ characters and actions in the film.

That said: I enjoyed Trance. Part of the fun of the Thriller, Mystery genre is being persuaded and misled into finally being delightedly surprised; but in the end there is a world of difference between being cleverly encouraged to draw the wrong conclusions and simply being conned by false images and events.

Performance-wise Dawson is marvelously languidly lustful; and McAvoy never very convincing for me, has at least greatly improved from the ludicrous Welcome to the Punch. Cassel is OK but does re-inforce here as in The Black Swan, my argument that actors performing in a second language lose much of the instinctive dynamism and physicality that comes naturally in their own. Franck is a pussycat compared to Mesrine.

Another one of those films which, though entertaining and sort of OK simply doesn’t do full justice to the intriguing idea at its heart. Trance begins by cleverly engaging and intriguing us but then tries too hard to shock and surprise, forgetting that like banknotes, deception, to work must be founded on a certain respect for truthfulness, however ambiguously expressed.

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