James McAvoy's Simon is reminiscent of his role in Wanted. Photos: MCT, NYT

Film review: Trance

It's a trip … with many twists and turns

Barry Chung
Starring: James McAvoy, Vincent Cassel, 
Rosario Dawson
Director: Danny Boyle
Category: III


Some filmmakers are a little too clever for their own good. With a devilish thriller about art theft, amnesia and hypnotism such as Trance, it would seem the combination of hallucinatory psychedelia and conspiratorial plot twists would be right up Danny Boyle’s alley. But he gets too caught up toying with the viewer using intricate visuals and psychological gamesmanship to realise it’s all a bit silly.

Trance is one of those films that hide their flimsy depth with overly complex plotting and ambiguous diversions. As long as the script keeps everyone puzzling, people will think it is probably really smart, and they’re not bright enough to keep up. In other words, it’s a cinematic Find the Lady.

Simon (James McAvoy) is the inside accomplice to a heist at an art auction.

The ringleader is kingpin Franck (Vincent Cassel), and there are three other heavies in his crew who steal a Goya painting worth £25 million (HK$295 million). During the theft, Simon’s nervous hesitation causes an abrupt change in plan, and he ends up being knocked out cold, giving him amnesia. When he wakes up, he can’t remember where he has hidden the painting even when Franck’s thugs tie him up and torture him.

So they take him to Elizabeth, a hypnotist in the shapely form of Rosario Dawson. From her first appearance, it is clear Elizabeth has a backstory we haven’t been told. Her connections to Simon and Franck get even messier when desires other than greed are brought to the surface. As Boyle unlocks each layer of memory in dazzling and almost poetic aesthetic, the intrigue becomes a triangle of misleading motives and intentions.

For a while, it’s fun, until it turns convoluted and pointless. The idea of criminal thugs resorting to hypnotism is a stretch anyway, but when the therapist, who is capable of memory manipulation, takes a greater interest in her patient, it’s a great big sign for dangerous plot curves ahead.

However, the film’s biggest fault is that none of the characters is particularly likeable. If you don’t care for them, it’s hard to root for a winner.

Finally, the lost painting hardly matters with all the elaborate twists recovered from people’s subconscious.

McAvoy’s head trauma victim is reminiscent of his timid-mouseturned- assassin role in Wanted, except that guy was a lot more interesting. And Dawson doesn’t have the seductive charisma of, say, Angelina Jolie. As for Cassel, he’s doing what he always does – being intimidating and charismatic.

Taken purely as a mind trip, Trance offers some Boyle-style visual panache and sensory elegance. The way he sets up moods, delivers wry cinematic punchlines or paints a scene with vivid colours makes the improbable revelations in the denouement that much more ridiculous.

Perhaps a lesser director would keep the tension more focused, take less thematic chances and make a better genre effort. That would be more cohesive, but it probably wouldn’t be as daring a failure.

Andrew Sun ( [email protected])


Trance is screening now


This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: It's a trip … with many twists and turns