UK / 101 minutes / color with brief bw / Pathé, Fox Searchlight Dir: Danny Boyle Pr: Christian Colson Scr: Joe Ahearne, John Hodge Story: Joe Ahearne Cine: Anthony Dod Mantle Cast: James McAvoy, Vincent Cassel, Rosario Dawson, Danny Sapani, Matt Cross, Wahab Sheikh, Mark Poltimore, Tuppence Middleton.
“There is a painting. It’s by Rembrandt. Storm on the Sea of Galilee, it’s called, and he’s in it. Old Rembrandt—he’s in the painting. He’s in there, right in the middle of the storm, looking straight out at you. But you can’t see him. And the reason you can’t see him is because the painting has been stolen. Lots of paintings have been stolen . . .”
These words, done in voiceover by Simon Newton (McAvoy), a staffer at the upscale London auction house Delancy’s, introduce what looks at first glance as if it’ll be a standard art-heist movie; in fact, it’s anything but.
Yes, it starts with an armed robbery from Delancy’s. As he has been drilled to do, Simon takes the most valuable piece in sight, the Goya painting Witches in the Air, puts it in a case, and heads with it and two colleagues toward the dropslot for the time-release safe. As they reach it, though, they’re intercepted by the robber gang’s ringleader, Franck (Cassel). There’s an altercation involving a grossly incompetent attempt to use a taser, and Franck knocks Simon unconscious.
Franck, confronting Simon as the latter heads for the dropslot.
The next we see of Simon he’s in hospital being treated for partial amnesia. On his eventual release he finds his flat trashed, and almost immediately he’s picked up by Franck and henchmen Nate (Sapani), Riz (Sheikh) and Dominic (Cross). It proves Simon was the inside man for the heist but managed to appropriate and hide the painting somewhere between the auction room and the dropslot. Franck and company torture him grievously to tell them where the painting is before becoming convinced he has genuinely forgotten.
The answer to that problem seems to be hypnosis. Franck, who may be ruthless when need be but is no monster, tells Simon to pick whichever hypnotherapist he’d like from the directory, and so Simon selects Harley Street practitioner Elizabeth Lamb (Dawson)—for no real reason except that he likes the name. (The photo accompanying the listing might have helped too.) At his first consultation he claims to be David Maxwell, amnesic after a mugging and trying to find his car keys. Elizabeth seems startled by him, but the session goes well and, once home, he does indeed locate . . . a set of car keys. Not the outcome—i.e., the painting—that the gang was hoping for.
At the next consultation it becomes obvious that Elizabeth recognizes Simon—supposedly from newspaper photos after the heist—and she spots the microphone through which the rest of the gang are listening in on the conversation. Soon she cuts herself into the gang’s enterprise and, working as a team—Simon included—they try various hyponetherapeutic techniques to extract Simon’s memories of what he’s done with the painting. For the audience things are—deliberately—made confusing, as quite often we’re not sure if we’re witnessing reality or Simon’s fantasies/dreams. We discover for sure, though, that, a compulsive gambler, he approached Franck with the idea for the heist in consideration of Franck paying off all his gambling debts. We also learn that Simon in fact recovered from being knocked out, stumbled into the street and, while receiving a text message, was bowled over by a red Alfa Romeo whose driver (Middleton) picked him up and offered to drive him to the hospital.
And we discover, too, something we hadn’t known about Elizabeth—that, however much she might seem today to be in complete control of events around her, she has not long rid herself of an abusive boyfriend. What she did, apparently, was hypnotize the abusive lover into forgetting all about her . . .
Simon tries to rid himself of Franck.
There’s more, much more, to the plot. Toward the end of the movie, there’s a long monologue/infodump from Elizabeth explaining—not necessarily reliably—the true meaning of the events we’ve seen (unsurprisingly, there’s been a godgame in progress, but it’ll take us a while longer to be certain of who’s godgaming whom); this is probably the weakest moment in the movie because the effect of delivering so much revelation to us in a single blurt is merely to convince us that the plot is ludicrously more elaborate than a movie plot ought to be. Yet, later, the final resolution comes as a perfect satisfaction, as if we shouldn’t be caviling about the earlier stumbles.
Another example of this dichotomy in the movie between excellence and amateurishness: while Trance overall is visually very striking, the cinematography and shot selection quite superb, there’s one odd little clumsy sequence where the camera coyly teases us by not quite showing us a fully naked Franck, as if we were schoolgirls peeping agog between our fingers in hopes of seeing his willy. Yet there’s also one of the very few examples in neonoir of a scene of full-frontal female nudity being entirely justified by the plot, rather than just a cheap thrill.
There’s a way out: Elizabeth offers Franck the Trance app.
There are strong performances from all three principals, with Dawson — as a very likeable (and unusually intelligent) femme fatale — being especially magnetic. (She and director Boyle briefly became a couple after shooting the piece.) The movie is an elaborated remake of Trance (2001 TVM) dir and scr Joe Ahearne, with John Light, Neil Pearson and Susannah Harker.
On Amazon.com: Trance (Dvd.2013)