Danny Boyle has been all across the UK media for the last few weeks. I came out of a screening of Trance and found myself in the car listening to a long interview with him on the Radio 4 Film Programme. I’m not sure that this exposure is necessarily good for him – the best thing he’s done recently was to quietly refuse a knighthood. He’s a nice guy and a great filmmaker but now that he is a national treasure, expectations of his work have sky-rocketed. I get the impression that Trance is deliberately dark and nasty – he has called it the ‘evil cousin’ of his Olympics show. Perhaps it was the right film to make to escape from the gushing praise and to reclaim some ‘edge’ in his filmmaking.
Francine Stock’s interview did tease out some of the elements of Trance which I think can be ‘triangulated’ in a number of ways. On one level, as Boyle suggested, it is a return (with John Hodge) to the three-hander about greed that was his first cinema feature Shallow Grave in 1994 – but now the characters are that much older and a good deal nastier. The setting for the narrative is initially the art world and the two men/one woman situation. In fact there are many elements in common with the Jo Nesbo adaptation Headhunters (Norway 2011). That film has more humour and is essentially an action thriller. The other well-known art theft scenario that comes to mind is a two-hander and a ‘romance-thriller’, The Thomas Crown Affair (1968 and 1999). Trance is much darker, drawing heavily on film noir – Boyle repeatedly called it noir/noirish in the interview. He also said, and this is key I feel, that the stolen object is purely symbolic – it represents something valuable that has been lost, but finding it is about power rather than just money. So what we get is a game about being in control and achieving the power when there are two other competitors. Who do you side with and who do you attempt to push out of the ring first? (The painting is a Goya used in several ways in the plot.)
I suspect that many of us are going to be racking our brains as to which noirs the film reminds us of. I can see that there are some resemblances to Out of the Past (Build My Gallows High, 1947), another three-hander, but in tone Trance is more like the later 1950s noirs from the real hard-boiled guys like Robert Aldrich with Kiss Me Deadly or Joseph H. Lewis’ The Big Combo (both 1955). Having said that, I’m not sure that the script is able to maintain the same tone throughout and at times it seemed to become more playful. The noir milieu depends on mise en scène, editing, sound and having good performances. Boyle is very keen on the importance of sound and I did notice it in the film, not just the music score which is interesting, but more so the sound effects and the voices. Boyle picked out sound as being important in an immersive sense – making us feel that we are trapped inside the head of a character experiencing hypnosis. However, effective though this is in the film, it’s the camerawork that really confirms a sense of ‘disturbance’ and claustrophobia. The hypnotist lives in one of those old Georgian terraces with a lift that has cage-like metal grille doors, perfect for shooting through (camera and guns) and other scenes take place in clubs, warehouses and bedrooms with glass walls, mirrors and concealed lighting. I thought that the camerawork was very good, but I did have doubts about the digital image which in a couple of shots didn’t have the deep blacks and clarity in low light levels that I expect from noirs.
The film is very much a three-hander. Even though there are important secondary roles, it is James McAvoy, Vincent Cassel and Rosario Dawson who must carry the film. I’m not sure why but I have problems with McAvoy as a lead in this kind of film. The problems are probably with me rather than him as he seems popular as an action hero, but there it is. I can’t explain it and in theory he is well cast – but he just doesn’t do it for me. Cassel on the other hand rarely puts a foot wrong in anything he does and he has the presence for a film like this. Rosario Dawson is terrific. I haven’t seen any of the Hollywood blockbusters she’s been in but I realised later that she was in two Spike Lee joints (He Got Game and 25th Hour). She has the definite strength and screen presence to stand up against Cassel. With these three leads and the rest of the criminal gang, Boyle has a ‘cosmopolitan cast’ for a film which he tells us could be set anywhere. There’s some truth in that but in a couple of scenes I thought “this can only be in London”. I’ve seen some reviews that mention Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises as another ‘alternative view’ of London’s criminal mileux, but apart from Vincent Cassel, I didn’t see any other similarities – the one thing Trance clearly isn’t is a film set in a specific cultural context.
I’m not sure whether the film will be successful. It’s quite a talky film with relatively few action sequences. The narrative inevitably twists upon itself because of the hypnosis sequences and I’m not sure that the multiplex audience or Danny Boyle’s hardcore fans are that taken with this kind of noir. I would need to see it a second time to begin to analyse how well the script stands up – at the moment it seems like the weakest element of the film. But having said that, new ideas keep popping up – none of the three principal characters have much in the way of backstories and I’m not sure what that means. The film is being seen by several reviewers as ‘style over substance’ but I think there is more to it than that. On the other hand, audiences who go looking for Inception or something similar will be disappointed. Anyone who says that the plot doesn’t make sense ought perhaps to remember that even Raymond Chandler couldn’t explain the plot holes in The Big Sleep – noirs are meant to be like dreams (or nightmares).
Two final points – it was good to see Tuppence Middleton getting a major film credit to follow her BBC appearance in The Lady Vanishes. I’d love to know how much Apple contributed to a film which is probably the most effective ad for a ‘gadget’ I’ve seen so far.