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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on Movies: Trance

TRANCE (Three Stars)

U.K.: Danny Boyle, 2013

Trance, a new erotic thriller from Danny Boyle, is a fast and fancy dance over a whirling dance-floor of crime, suspense  and sex. It begins with the theft of a world-famous painting (Francisco Goya’s spooky “Witches in the Air”), which is being swiped from  a London auction in mid-sale, and it continues through all kinds of stylish neo-noir alleys and crannies full of bloody gangsterism and Inception-like psychological mystery, until the whole show it finally ends with an unraveling that twists and turns and radically changes a lot of what went before.

It’s an exciting movie, and mostly unpredictable. But it’s not completely comprehensible, even when it’s all over, and Boyle and his screenwriters have sprung their last wowser. In any case, you don’t want to talk too much about what happens in Trance to people who haven’t seen it, because it‘s got surprises that may genuinely surprise. You also may want to delve into it or even watch it again after the first time, simply to figure out or get straight everything that you’ve just seen — or that you think you’ve just seen,

What seems to be happening at first is the  complex, meticulously planned  and daring theft of the painting, complete with smoke bombs and switcheroos,  in the middle of a posh, exclusive London auction, by a brutal but stylish  gang led by the fashionable Frank (French star Vincent Cassel). One of the  auction house’s junior employees, Simon (James McAvoy) tries to save the painting by encasing it and running off with it. (Or does he?). But he runs into Frank and gets cracked on the head, and Frank gets the Goya package. ( Or does he?) Soon we discover — and it’s not too much to reveal this, since it’s a key point early on — that Simon is part of the plot, and that the painting has disappeared, and that, apparently because of that head-crack, Simon hasn’t the foggiest clue where it is.

How to crcak open his head, or memory, again?  What to do about it? Well, Frank hires a luscious and oh-so-smart American hypnotherapist named Elizabeth (played by Rosario Dawson), to unlock the priceless secret in Simon‘s mind, which she starts to proceed confidently to do. (Or does she?)

Trance is the kind of movie that manages to be compelling even when it’s confusing; I defy you not to scratch your head a little when the climaxes start climaxing. But it’s a smart show. Boyle is rejoined here on the script by his first screenwriter John Hodge (of Shallow Grave and Trainspotting), along with Joe Ahearne, who wrote (and directed) the TV film, also called Trance, on which this picture is based.

Like Boyle’s and Hodge’s Shallow Grave, there’s a touch of meanness about the movie,  along with a high style theatrical edge and a  roller-coaster speed and frantic plunge and roll, that can slightly discombobulate and even alienate you, even though you may still enjoy the ride. The actors are all razor-sharp and noirishly off-color — including the hypnotic Dawson, the spellbound McAvoy, and all the heavies (Danny Sapani as Nate, Wahab Shiekh as Riz, and Matt Cross as Dominic), and especially Cassel.


Cassel, who‘s lost some of his youthful good looks (to make-up?) – but seen them replaced with the kind of weathered   grace the older Bogart or Widmark had — made his movie star debut in 1995, as the French banlieue juvenile delinquent Vinz (the guy with the gun) in Mathieu Kassovitz’s La Haine. Since then he has specialized a lot in neo-noir, and he brings the part a casual criminal authority, without having to push  sadism too hard.

McAvoy, on the other hand, plays a more ambiguous character in Simon , a seeming innocent with an evil side, and he does it very well, managing to compel and confuse us too. He gets both sides of the character. His boyishness is seductive; his weakness is deliberately off-putting. I hate the idea of great works of art, especially paintings like this Goya masterpiece being handled like this (razored and ripped from their frames and raced around in the chaos of the robbery, and then lost), but the whole film is so artificial — like a mix of Spellbound and The Thomas Crown Affair — that, mercifully, you can’t take it too seriously.

The film, shot by Boyle‘s usual camera-mate Anthony Dod Mantle, is full of glowing colors and helter-skelter action and pungent villains and sumptuous sights — the most sumptuous of which is definitely the beautiful and brainy Ms. Dawson — who should get more roles like this. I’m not just talking about her already famous nude scenes. But, As they said in the heyday of ‘40s noir when a real femme fatale walked by, hubba hubba.


Trance isn’t one of Danny Boyle’s best films (unless you’re insanely in love with either Rosario Dawson or James McAvoy, but then again, he doesn’t make many bad or uninteresting ones. The movie recycles one of his favorite themes — sudden wealth and its consequences — in interesting new ways. And Boyle keeps it popping, even when the confusion outpaces the compulsion. The plot has its ragged moments, but it’s also satisfying to see a contemporary thriller that isn‘t monosyllabic, vicious and monotonously violent — at least not all the time. By the way, in case you’re worried, the Goya painting, “Witches in the Air” is still safely ensconced in its home in Spain’s Prado Museum. If you’re ever in Spain, you can see it, without smoke bombs.

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