This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Danny Boyle is a wizard of the moving image. He was in charge of the opening-night show at the London Olympics, and his cast of thousands of quick-steppers speedily transformed an athletic field into pastoral England, complete with hills and dales, sheep and poets. He then had them tear it all down to make way for the industrial revolution as he took us on a long, high-speed march through the nation's history, ending with the reigning Queen of England, or so it seemed, entering the stadium by parachute.
And Boyle can flat-out shoot film. His movies are visually kaleidoscopic, with images cascading by. Sometimes it all works beautifully -- sense and sensibility coalesce, and we get "Slumdog Millionaire." Sometimes style overcomes substance, and we are left with a whole lot of dazzling camerawork and not much in the way of coherent story or believable characters -- as in "The Beach."
Boyle's new psychological thriller, "Trance," is unfortunately closer to "The Beach" than it is to "Slumdog Millionaire." In the end, it has so many turns and twists, both visual and narrative, that it becomes more baffling than beguiling, and the characters, trapped in the gears of Boyle's speeding cinematic mechanism, never really come alive.
In "Trance," Simon (James McAvoy) works at a London art auction house. A Goya worth more than 25 millions pounds is on the block when alarms sound, warning of thieves on the premises. Simon grabs the painting, shoves it into a protective container and heads for a vault where it can be safely stashed away. But he is stopped en route and knocked unconscious by Frank (Vincent Cassel), a pugnacious thief.
Frank grabs the container and makes his getaway. One problem -- the container is empty. Simon presumably stashed the Goya somewhere before he ran into Frank. But where? Simon, when he wakes up from a bad concussion, can't remember where he put the darned thing, even after excitable Frank and his small retinue of thugs subject him to some seriously enhanced interrogation.
Frank finally realizes that beating Simon insensate, though it may be emotionally satisfying, is not helping him find the Goya. He decides hypnosis is the answer.
Enter Dr. Elizabeth Lamb (Rosario Dawson), a shrink who seems to have mysterious (and credulity-stretching) connections to both Simon and Frank, connections that extend to her bedroom.
First she hypnotizes Simon and sends him trawling through his memories. When Simon fails to come up with what he did with the Goya, Dr. Lamb, for reasons that are never really clear, decides to hypnotize Frank and his thugs. Pretty soon we are dashing through Neo-Freudian landscapes, hopping in and out of the minds of various people. Space, time and identity become a jumble of highly torqued images.
It's all very confusing. Eventually, I decided that these characters -- simple Simon and sexy Dr. Lamb and sadistic Frank and the lesser thugs -- represented not people but race cars to Danny Boyle, and he was having great fun playing with his speedy toys, and with us. After an hour or so of going around and around with Danny Boyle, I just wanted to steer into the pits and clear my aching head.