Danny Boyle may just be one of the most over-rated directors Britain has. Contentious statement, no? Well, the promise shown by Shallow Grave and Trainspotting has been left wanting in the intervening years, but despite being a competent and varied director, none of his films have lived up to the promise shown by those mid nineties films. There are of course flashes of brilliance in the likes of 28 Days Later and 127 Hours, but neither are perfect and do not get me started on how the average Slumdog Millionaire could be even remotely considered an Oscar worthy film. Saying all that my favourite work of his is Sunshine - yes it's a film that's generally dismissed but my fascination with it stems from the mood it creates, the ideas, the casting and many flashes of visual brilliance. In fact that's exactly where Boyle's strength lies - he's a great visual director but a pretty average storyteller, which is why his films don't usually live up to their potential.
Somewhat predictably Boyle's latest film Trance falls into that trap again. It's a film about art, thievery, memory, hypnosis and a handful of other things that might be too spoilerish to say. Centering on Simon (James McAvoy), an auctioneer who desperately needs to remember something very important that he's lost, he turns to hypnotist Elizabeth (Rosario Dawson) to help him remember, whilst slightly shady Franck (Vincent Cassell) is on hand to try and make things turn ugly. If only it was that straight forward though as Trance too readily twists and turns itself into all manner of unnecessarily complicated corners.
Films that play with the notion of reality and what exactly is memory have the potential to be really creative with their approach, just look at Memento or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind as prime examples. Trance attempts to go down that route but ends up feeling lost when it gets there. Everything starts out linear with a very intriguing set up, but as we start prodding Simons' mind and clarity becomes clouded, the film falls into a stasis of intentional obfuscation. Of course none of this is too difficult to follow but it's just not particularly interesting, whilst there are far too many blandly repetitive scenes stuck in the same dull location doing essentially the same thing, boxing the film into a boring corner. By the time it exudes self proudness for the big reveal it just ends up feeling underwhelming leaving you to wish it'd just hurry up.
McAvoy does nothing notable with the lead role and he's not the most engaging actor, although he's marginally better than his irritating turn in the thoroughly average Welcome to the Punch, which has seen him leading two films in as many weeks. That's not to say he's bad in Trance, but there's nothing memorable about him and he hardly makes the role his own. Dawson fairs better as she has more personality, but her character feels like it's lacking something, similar to Cassell's who goes only a notch above one note villain. Regardless, Cassell is always an interesting actor to watch on screen. It's visually where the film succeeds, with decent camera work that at times bleeds between scenes in a satisfying way. This is what truly holds the film together rather than the acting or the story. The handful of brutal moments also aim to give the film a bit more impact, which is something it sorely needs.
The main problem with Trance is the story, which is not half as clever as it thinks it is. There's a fairly decent core of an idea buried somewhere deep inside but good luck trying to extract it from the pointlessly convoluted wrapping, which only serves to frustrate and at times bore. The grating way it teases and prods the audience like a child with a stick as it ever so slowly and generically reveals small details makes for a not particularly thrilling thriller. Giving more time and space to the art or crime angles rather than its hypnosis parlour tricks would've bolstered things and might've, for example, allowed an appreciation of how the Goya painting the film fixates on serves as a clever analogy to one key character. Without the acting to save it, Trance ironically ends up mostly forgettable and is further proof of how Boyle struggles as a storyteller.