Thursday, 28 March 2013

Do You Wanna Trance? - Trance Review

Danny Boyle is a director unafraid to take risks, albeit calculated ones. He has a budget cut-off of £20 million, when his Academy Award-winning clout could see him command considerably more, because he maintains that working on a smaller-scale grants him a creative freedom of concept and approach that would be unavailable in the big leagues. And his pictures are typically aimed at the youthful, male demographic that dominates cinema attendance: there's sex, violence, and central roles for the young and the beautiful. He has said that cinema is irrevocably a young man's medium, and he seems less bothered by this than many other acclaimed filmmakers.

That being said, he's still the man most responsible for expanding modern British cinema outwards from the kitchen-sink realism that has often been clung to less out of artistic merit than cowardice and lack of imagination. Back in the early 90s he embraced youth subcultures, before moving on to introduce a virulent new strand of zombie horror to these grey shores, and then produce what has been called the first 'global' blockbuster, Slumdog Millionaire.

His latest, Trance, is seemingly an attempt to discombobulate the conventions of the psychological thriller, taking cues from glossy romps like Basic Instinct in its mix of mental sparring and erotic seduction.

Obviously, like any sleight of hand, the magician relies on you not knowing all of the cards in his deck, so to give away too much of the plot would spoil the film's only real purpose: to surprise. Suffice it to say that James McAvoy stars as a fine art auctioneer who acts as the inside man and masterminds the heist of a multi-million-pound Goya painting with a gang of London criminals. When the canvas goes missing, the gang assume that McAvoy has double-crossed them, but the out-of-his-depth auctioneer has sustained amnesia from an injury to the head and can't remember what he did with the desired object. Despairing of cracking his memories by force, head criminal Vincent Cassel drags McAvoy off to a hypnotherapist, played by Rosario Dawson, hoping that she can dredge up what he has forgotten by inducing the titular state. Instead, the therapist becomes increasingly involved in the lives of the conspirators, and a twisted power dynamic develops as they inch closer to the inevitable revelations.

It's fair to say that an act of goodwill is necessary to sustain disbelief in the daft plot. In the mould of many thrillers, the solution is both simple and hopelessly contrived, with the filmmakers' need to tie up every loose end demanding an entire spaghetti bowl's worth of implausible connections. But that shouldn't downplay the mischievous fun that the film has: Whilst it would perhaps be going too far to say that it subverts any genre tropes, it certainly shakes them up. The biggest surprise turns out not to be the mystery as such, so much as the way that the film cleverly wrong-foots the audience's sympathies at the very start before slowly challenging them to reconsider or even despair of deciding whose side they are on come the end.

Aside from the screenwriting skill then, the able performances of the three leads should also be singled out for praise. McAvoy, in particular, shifts effortlessly, and somewhat disconcertingly, from cheeky likeability to sleazy, skin-crawling creepiness. It's quite a brave part to accept, especially when one considers that he could probably be taking a series of undemanding roles as the brooding, gorgeous romantic hero. And Rosario Dawson makes those Basic Instinct comparisons really hit home, with her updating of the femme fatale archetype. She has the ability as an actress to convey both innocence and wisdom, perfect for playing a woman who appears to be the victim of a male plot only to emerge as the smartest player, albeit a wounded one.

Predictably, being a Danny Boyle movie, one of the few unqualified successes of the film is the way it looks. Its feverish rendering of chrome and glass London cityscapes, distorted by trauma and deception, recall the nightmarish palette of his debut, Shallow Grave. Everything - faces, bodies, objects - are constantly in your face, as if every one of the film's burnished surfaces is coated in cocaine and the camera is an enormous nose trying frantically to snort it all up. The incessantly glamorous locales and flattering, neon lighting might make it look as if a mystery drama has spontaneously broken out in the middle of a car commercial, but for a film all about superficial impressions and the lure of greed it's totally appropriate and an unapologetic feast for the eyes.

It's very unlikely to enjoy the same level of success or lasting cultural impact as Boyle's best work, but as a follow-up to and a reaction against his choreography of the 2012 Olympic Games opening ceremony, it demonstrates Boyle's enviable talent for making something stamped with his own brand of creativity from even the most diverse of materials. And thankfully there's no cameo from Mr Bean this time out...