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As readers of the collected reviews will probably have surmised, I am late to the party when it comes to feting Danny Boyle as a film-maker – I can’t remember seeing a film of his that I actually thought was bad, per se, but certainly many of the early ones just strike me as a little bit too smug and glossy. Having said that, I love 28 Days Later, thought Slumdog Millionaire was terrific, and had a lot of time for 127 Hours as well. So I suppose I’ve come around to the view that – certainly of late – Boyle has become a genuine national treasure as a director of real class.

Trance-Poster

This is a consensus unlikely to be much damaged by his new film, Trance, unless I miss my guess very badly. In retrospect, this looks and feels very much like a Boyle film from beginning to end, and the story itself contains a few old friends from past projects – violent gangs as antagonists, scene-setting voice-overs, a few other tropes, whistles and bells with the narrative voice – and yet it still manages the neat trick of feeling completely fresh and surprising, thanks to a ferociously clever and convoluted story originated by the less generally well-known writer-director Joe Ahearne (who earned the respect of some of us for his work in Ancient Times on This Life and Ultraviolet). All in all this is a very smart and attractive package.

The film opens by introducing us to junior auctioneer Simon Newton (James McAvoy), who cheerfully explains to us the package of measures in place to stop people nicking expensive paintings when they come up for sale. This, of course, goes hand in hand with the depiction of a well-organised attempt to circumvent these precautions when a famous Goya picture is sold for £25 million. Simon is briefly in charge of taking the threatened picture to safety, but is cornered by lead thief Franck (Vincent Cassel) who relieves him of it and gives him a nasty crack on the head for his trouble. However, when Franck pauses to admire his ill-gotten gains, the picture seems to have vanished into thin air…

When Simon gets out of hospital, he is less than pleased to find his flat and car have both been ransacked, and even less delighted when Franck’s henchmen whisk him off to a secluded location for a fairly intense chat. Simon, it transpires, was in on the robbery from the start, but the disappearing picture was not part of the plan. If he wishes to retain all his body parts in working order, Franck suggests he hands it over right away. But of course, there is a problem – Simon’s bang on the head seems to have left him with amnesia concerning exactly what happened in the aftermath of the robbery, and he’s no clue what happened to the painting. Trimming down the ends of Simon’s fingers does not improve his memory and so the gang resort to different approach – Simon is packed off to a comely hypnotherapist (Rosario Dawson), with instructions to get his memory restored so everyone can go their separate ways with smiles on their faces . However, Franck and Simon have reckoned without the therapist, who brings a new and unexpected agenda of her own to this already tangled situation.

Trance kicks off like a slick and glossy caper thriller somewhat in the vein of Ocean’s Eleven – the opening sequence, detailing the robbery itself, is brilliantly put together and hugely enjoyable. But as well as showcasing Boyle’s mastery of the medium, this part of the film is surely there to settle the audience, engage them with the film, and – perhaps most importantly – win their trust. This is because there is a moment, not very far into the film, where I sat back and suddenly realised I had absolutely no idea which way this story was going to go next. It’s hellishly difficult to fly off the beacon like this and take the audience with you, but Boyle manages it almost effortlessly.

Almost imperceptibly the focus of the film shifts from the problem of finding the missing painting, and it becomes a much darker, more twisted thriller about the relationship between the three lead characters. Not everything is as it has first been presented to us, and the story becomes a matter of digging down through complex layers of deception and confusion to reach the truth. As they do so, the roles of mastermind, manipulatee, and victim shuffle back and forth between the trio: it’s a hell of a conjuring trick, and almost flawlessly executed (I can only think of one possible moment where the film appears to be cheating, and I’d have to see it again to be sure). But you have to keep your wits about you and pay attention if you want to keep up – this is a supremely confident film and not one that make compromises for the sake of the audience.

This extends to some of the elements of violence and gore which punctuate the film – in terms of these alone, Trance must be at the absolute top end of the 15 certificate, and this is before we even get to the sex and nudity. This is the only part of the film about which I have some misgivings, because its sexual politics seem to me to be a little skewed. You could certainly argue that this is, on some level, a story about feminine empowerment, but this does not sit especially easily with a couple of sequences requiring some remarkably graphic nudity from the leading lady (especially considering that nothing really comparable is expected of the two men). These scenes felt to me to have a nasty, leering quality quite at odds with the rest of the film, and while they illustrate both character and plot points, the points in question are hardly essential to the story.

This stuff certainly brings a vaguely ugly quality to a film which otherwise seems intended to be as attractive and bright as possible, even at the expense of some credibility – Trance shows London as a glossy, beautiful playground, where everyone has a giant-sized wall TV, state-of-the-art fitted kitchen, and private pool, and people can routinely afford to send each other iPads in the post rather than one of your actual letters. It is slightly absurd, but at the same time very appealing – and much the same could be said of the convolutions of the plot. Danny Boyle orchestrates the whole thing with seemingly effortless skill, helped by very solid performances from the three stars, all of whom make the most of the ambiguities inherent in the script. Not a film for kids, nor one to be taken too seriously – but as a piece of hugely stylish and highly intelligent entertainment, Trance is almost wholly successful.

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