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'Trance' review: James McAvoy in mind-bending Danny Boyle thriller

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Released on Wednesday, Mar 27 2013

Director: Danny Boyle; Screenwriters: Joe Ahearne, John Hodge; Starring James McAvoy, Rosario Dawson, Vincent Cassel, Tuppence Middleton; Running time: 101 mins; Certificate: 15


Often it's a thin line between genius and madness, and director Danny Boyle just tips the balance the wrong way with this psychological heist thriller. James McAvoy is, ostensibly, the star of the show as a London art dealer who is forced to assist in the theft of a Goya painting and then forgets where he stashed it, but part of the problem is that Boyle's attention flits too much between characters.

Throughout, and with typically in-your-face style, Boyle also blurs the line between what is real and what is happening inside Simon's (McAvoy) addled mind after he gets pistol-whipped to the head. But the director underlines the artifice of his own medium as well, having Simon address the camera directly to retrace his steps on the day of the heist, up until the point that he loses consciousness.

It is a promising start, dynamically shot and discomfiting for the right reasons. Confused as he is, Simon recalls enough to know that he's in trouble with some very bad people, led by the impatient Franck (Vincent Cassel). When good old-fashioned torture doesn't get him the information he needs, Franck sends Simon to a hypnotherapist with a wire and a lame cover story about losing his keys.

Trance, Vincent Cassel


Rosario Dawson is the headshrinker, Elizabeth, who doesn't need a science degree to figure out that Simon is hiding something. There's an opportunity for a few laughs here as she finally leads him (and Franck's boys) to those oh-so-precious keys. But very soon after that, it gets less funny and more infuriating, until about halfway through the film, when it becomes utterly uninteresting.

This is the kind of puzzle box thriller where everyone has an angle, leading to many a twist and turn, each casting a different reflection on what happened at the start. It is a very intricate plot devised by TV scribe Joe Ahearne and John Hodge (Boyle's longtime associate), but so many turning cogs only grind on the nerves when the characters have little or no redeeming features.

Disconcerting, for the wrong reasons, is the way in which Simon is reduced to a supporting player through the middle of the film while Elizabeth calls the shots. For one thing, Dawson is just too darned flighty to command the screen. Instead, she bares her skin (every last inch of it in a scene sure to earn her notoriety), and for a final payoff that just isn't worth the paper she waxed with.

Rosario Dawson as Elizabeth in Danny Boyle's Trance


Boyle is so concerned with keeping things slick that any dramatic effect is entirely superficial. McAvoy and Cassel are given a bit more to work with in the last stages, but by then it's far too late. Addressing the inner turmoil of his characters (especially Simon) is never as important as revealing something new, or switching sympathies that haven't been earned in the first place.

Had the film been restricted to Simon's tortured viewpoint, it might have been a masterpiece instead of a tricksy and increasingly tedious mind game, devoid of soul. Eventually, everything comes into focus in a spectacular dockside showdown, meticulously choreographed and captured in slow-motion against the orangey glow of a giant fireball. That'll wake you up.


Video: Watch the 'Trance' trailer:

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