Film review: Trance is a puzzle that is all in the head

This story was first published in The Straits Times on May 1, 2013 

Review Thriller


101 minutes/Opens today/****

The story: Auction house employee Simon (James McAvoy) is the inside man in the robbery of a painting worth millions. Things go awry during the heist and he suffers a blow to the head, which wipes out his memory of where the piece is hidden. Gang leader Franck (Vincent Cassel) takes him to hypnotherapist Elizabeth Lamb (Rosario Dawson), hoping she can retrieve the lost memory. As the relationship between the three deepens, the risk of treachery looms ever larger.

British director Danny Boyle has delivered a thriller that takes place inside the thoughts of one character and it proves to be a head trip of the best kind - visually arresting, rapidly paced and unafraid of going into darker places.

If Britain needed its own answer to America's Coen brothers, the pairing of director Boyle and writer John Hodge should be safely at the top of the list. Both teams have mastered the skill of creating a product that is just artistic enough to win critical attention while having just enough commercial appeal for mainstream release.

Boyle and Hodge both broke out with the low-budget thriller about greedy roommates and a briefcase of cash, Shallow Grave (1994), followed with the junkie misadventure and cult favourite Trainspotting (1996) and ended their streak on a somewhat mixed note with the story of a paradise lost, The Beach (2000).

This drama sees Hodge adapting a little-watched 2001 television movie of the same name into a screenplay that bears his trademark of pithy dialogue, tinged with mordant humour. Its structure recalls Shallow Grave: Events at first suggest that the story might go in a light-hearted direction, but the story swerves into grislier, more blackly comic territory soon after.

Boyle clearly enjoys working with a writer who gives him so much room to explore non-verbal communication between characters, aided by soundtrack.

Actors McAvoy and Dawson are particularly effective in acting with their eyes. The way Simon looks at Elizabeth, and how Elizabeth responds with her face and body, is one of the pleasures here.

The story's reliance on a non-linear timeline and a point-of-view narrator, Simon, whose recall might be less than total - if not self-servingly false - keeps the viewer guessing where the objective truth lies, or even if there is one. Boyle cranks up the mood of ambiguity, factual and moral, by never spoon-feeding background or plot. Scenes end just before all their secrets are revealed.

Hodge and Boyle have delivered a puzzle movie which on close examination has a few pieces that require cheats to fit, but the whole is so well- crafted that its seams do not matter.

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