Danny Boyle's new film, Trance, has lots of ambition, but lots of problems, reports Paul...
There are things that feel seismically important at their moment in time, then fade in the memory as the years go by, their artifice and unremarkable nature suddenly apparent when plucked from their initial context.
The opening ceremony for the Olympics is not one of these things. It was spectacular then when I watched it in a garden in Hackney with all of my friends, initially sceptical, then awed by the spectacle, tickled by Bond and the Queen, weirdly moved by Mr Bean then completely won over by the NHS celebration, before heading onto the roof to watch the entire horizon explode into fireworks and generally radiate with the feeling that we (with we pertaining to us as individuals, our friendship groups and respective relationships, and the whole bloody United Kingdom) were actually going to be alright.
I then watched the opening ceremony again a few months ago, devoid of hubbub, and was pleased to see it had barely lost any of its power. The colossal technical achievement of it all was more striking. It also became clear how well paced it was. The inherent brilliance of the whole thing survives the nationalistic fervour that it initiated and is something to be admired and celebrate on its own terms for as long as it survives on whatever format we’ll be watching stuff on years from now.
Ideally, that’s where this review of Trance would end – celebrating Danny Boyle’s role as architect of one of the cultural events of the decade, and completely disregarding the part he played in directing one of the dodgiest films of the year.
Here’s an obligatory synopsis: James McEvoy plays Simon, the inside man in an elaborate art heist, who, in a moment of madness/spontenaeity/conscience decides to sabotage the plans at the last minute and squirrel the painting away for himself. The unimpressed lead heavy (Vincent Cassel) understandably objects to his unexpected heroism, and cold cocks him in the face with the butt of a shotgun before escaping the scene.
The only problem is that this brutal rejoinder leaves Simon with the kind of conveniently temporary amnesia beloved by screenwriters everywhere, meaning the location of the million-dollar painting remains stuck inside his head. After torturing him mercilessly fails to turn up any answers, Franck and his gang recruit a beautiful hypnotherapist (Rosario Dawson) to find out where it’s hidden. But it turns out that getting to the painting will required delving deeper into Simon’s psyche than any of the participants may be comfortable with, and potentially unearthing hidden memories that will change the lives of everyone around him.
Trance, much like the musical genre it shares a title with, not only did little for me but actively, persistently irritated me for the majority of its running time. It’s a textbook exercise in film-making that works on the ‘here’s some stuff, now here’s some more stuff’ basis, with little regard for a coherent tone or engaging characters. Boyle has always been a maximalist film-maker, his excitable, eager-to-please personality translating into films with the same qualities. But what Trance demonstrates is that his films need to be grounded in something meaningful at script level, like Alex Garland’s dystopic social commentary or Simon Beaufoy witty humanity, for the stylistic excesses not to feel headache-inducing.
It’s odd that the co-screenwriter (along with Doctor Who’s Joe Ahearne) is John Hodge, who wrote two of Boyle’s best, most consistent films in Shallow Grave and Trainspotting. Here the pair produce an overly-caffeinated script that feels structurally similar to the twisty, psychedelic mystery schlock employed by 60s Giallo movies like The Strange Vice Of Mrs Wardh and Lizard In A Woman's Skin. But whereas those films offset their preposterousness with a lurid charm, camp humour and Technicolor sumptuousness, Trance lacks all of these. It's a stylish film, but not a good-looking one, framing Docklands London with a harsh, blue and black colour pallette that enhances a grimy atmosphere but is at odds with the plot itself, which is camp ultra-nonsense. The dialogue is stilted, and the characters are uniformly unlikeable, not helped by performances from Cassel, Dawson and McEvoy, all of whom feel miscast and look appropriately uncomfortable.
After a promising, attention-grabbing initial heist sequence, Trance begins to rapidly, fatally stretch its own thin plausibility, with a queasy combination of outrageous twists, tonal missteps and head-thumping dialogue: it snaps entirely somewhere around the 45 minute mark, but the film just keeps accelerating, its own severed credibility flapping around behind it like a rubber scarf as Boyle sprints excitably for the hills without looking back, eager to show you the next bizarre thing he’s come up with before you can get your bearings and, crucially, figure out why you should actually care.
It's obvious when you're supposed to care, as big moments are thuddingly signposted by an intrusive, ear-splittingly loud score from Underworld's Rick Smith - another Olympics collaborator who was clearly pouring his creative energies in one direction last year - but it just serves as another barrier to any kind of emotional investment from the viewer, and a third act attempt to take the story into darker emotional territory feels completely unearned.
If you just want to see a load of crazy stuff happening, however, then you’ll definitely be placated by what Trance has to offer. Impressively nasty CGI gore! A depiction of sexual assault soundtracked by M People! Egregious use of iPads! A key plot point based around the pubic topiary of a lead character! There is quite literally something for everyone here, if everyone you know is a glue-sniffing 15-year-old. It just serves to demonstrate that there are two distinct variations of 'WTF' moments, one that is roughly analogous to the difference between the word 'incredible' and the words 'not credible'.
The things is, as annoying as I found Trance, I can't quite bring myself to tell you that you shouldn't see it. It is, for all its faults, unlike anything else you will see at the cinema for a while, and ultimately has to be admired for taking as many risks as it does. It’s certainly never boring, and while it's a shame that Boyle swings and misses nearly 100 per cent of the time here, hey: at least he's swinging, which is more than can be said for most mainstream filmmakers.
Trance definitely feels like a misfire for all concerned, though, and its script and relentless mistaking of formal tricksiness for depth isn't easy to overlook, even as the piece of flashy nonsense it so clearly is. Like the tortured memories of its amnesiac hero, Trance is, sadly, probably just best forgotten.
It's still better than the closing ceremony though.
Trance opens on the 27th March in the UK.
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