When constructing an opening ceremony for the 2008 Summer Olympics China brought in the director Zhang Yimou as creative consultant, which seemed like a logical choice given that he’s made a number of visually spectacular action epics. Four years later, when the Olympics came to the UK, the Brits needed to find a filmmaker of their own to top China’s spectacle. That’s not as easy a task as you’d think given that British cinema is probably most famous for social realist cinema from the likes of Mike Leigh and Ken Loach. There are certainly some British directors with an eye for spectacle like Ridley Scott and Christopher Nolan, but most of them have made careers in Hollywood rather than their home countries and they don’t necessarily seem all that tapped into their native culture. In the end there was really only one logical choice for a homegrown British director with an energetic and visually inspired style, and that was Danny Boyle.
Boyle hasn’t gained his reputation visual stylist by working with huge budgets (though he has made some films on a fairly large scale), rather, he’s found ways to tell small scale stories in visually distinct ways and with a ton of energy. For instance, his breakthrough film Trainspotting was mostly the story of a bunch of Scottish junkies going from one hovel to another but Boyle was able to turn it into so much more through some smart editing, creative camera placement, and wise soundtrack selections. Even as his budgets have grown, his ability to make fast paced and visually exciting work has persisted. Boyle’s last three films (Sunshine, Slumdog Millionaire, and 127 Hours) have shown a filmmaker at the top of his form and his assignment to produce the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics was a sort of victory lap for his recent successes. His first post-Olympics release is a thriller set in the world of fine art auctioneering called Trance.
The film opens with a gang of thieves led by a shotgun toting criminal named Franck (Vincent Cassel) breaking into an auction-house trying to steal a priceless Goya painting. The head auctioneer at the scene named Simon (James McAvoy) tries to save the painting, but he’s cut off and hit in the head before it can be secured and Franck gets away with the loot only to then discover that Simon (who had been in on the crime from the beginning) pulled a fast one on him and switched the paining for an empty frame. One week later Simon is released from the hospital and is almost immediately abducted by Franck, who’s mad as hell and wants to know where the painting ended up, but Simon claims he can’t remember where it ended up because of the blow to the head. Desperate for a way for Simon to regain this memory, Franck decides to send him to a hypnotist named Elizabeth Lamb (Rosario Dawson) who will also soon become embroiled in this sordid affair.
Danny Boyle has long been the type of director that’s more than happy to hop from genre to genre. He’s made everything from a horror film to a family film and Trance is his foray into the world of twisty Usual Suspects style crime thrillers. It’s also something of a throwback to when Boyle was making films on a smaller scale than what he’s been making lately. That this is a movie about a bunch of crooks trying to stab each other in the back will remind longtime fans of his 1994 debut, Shallow Grave, and the film’s psychological side will remind viewers of his divisive 2000 effort The Beach.
Sometimes the mark of a great auteur is their ability to take material that isn’t all that great and make it seem a lot better than it is by injecting it with an enjoyable signature style, and I think that’s pretty much what’s going on in Trance. The film’s screenplay by Joe Ahearne and John Hodge isn’t a complete mess or anything, but I wouldn’t call it brilliant either and I can easily see it being turned into a sleazy direct-to-DVD release if it were being produced by people who are less talented. Fortunately, Boyle’s style is as infectious here as it is anywhere and he can turn scenes that would otherwise be rather pedestrian into fairly exciting moments. I’m sure that Boyle will get back to making bolder statements than this soon enough. Until then I can live with him making fun trash like Trance. It’s not a movie that one needs to run out and see on opening weekend, but I suspect that it will provide for some mostly positive blind-rental experiences in the coming years.
*** out of Four