National Treasure Danny Boyle is currently riding a wave of goodwill. The feting he received for his work on the Olympics cemented a reputation that evolved from slightly arty populist to establishment darling (in the wake of his Oscar for Slumdog Millionaire). Despite the distracting surface details of his penchant for genre hopping and a magpie attitude to sound and vision, he’s known as a filmmaker informed by social conscience and, by consequence or distinct sensibility, the impulse of a provocateur.
He gains credibility for turning down a knighthood and remaining entrenched in Britain (despite the occasional flirtation with Hollywood, such as his disappointing adaptation of The Beach). In that respect he could be marked out as a very different fish to (Sir) Ridley Scott who, in the last decade or so, had redefined himself as a commercially viable studio workhorse. The only telltale sign of Ridley’s early innovations is a now identikit visual sheen that drenches his every shot. But Boyle is nevertheless closer to Scott in narrative instincts and temperament than he is to, say, a Ken Loach or Mike Leigh. As a motivation, he is all about aspiration even when his subject matter is dark and downbeat. But Boyle vaguely attempts to keep one foot on the ground in deference to social realist, or maybe just realist, roots, rather than completely floating off into the formalist clouds with Ridley.
But the trait that most links Boyle and Scott is one of narrative weakness. Time and again in their work they have cranked up the surface elements of their movies, almost as an unvoiced recognition of the inherent problems with the material. Neither director has even begun recapture the quality of their early work. Scott’s Alien and Blade Runner convey a verisimilitude in their world building that throws much of his later work into sharp relief as uninspired mimicry. Those films are so immersive (see the next paragraph) that story deficiencies have been unable to dent the impact of the overall picture. Boyle hit the ground running with his first two films, Shallow Grave and Trainspotting, but since then he has the perfect marriage between his restless visual energy and a supportive, fully-formed, narrative has elude him.
Boyle frequently cites Nicolas Roeg as a major influence, and has commented upon the “total immersion” that comes with his best work. He also praises Roeg’s non-linear, fractured approach to narrative, where time is fluid. Crucially, Roeg inspires Boyle as a mainstream filmmaker who unceasingly explores his experimental instincts. When Boyle praises Roeg as the greatest British filmmaker, above Lean or Hitchcock, I’m inclined to agree with him. But recognition doesn’t necessarily translate into practice, and Boyle’s desire to associate his latest film with the director’s oeuvre seems at best misguided, at worst blinkered.
Even the mid-stage movies he refers to as influenced by Roeg, Memento and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, are overtly designed such that their playing with time and memory are embedded in the construction of the narrative itself. Both of those films are outstanding pieces of work, but it couldn’t be said that either conveys the organic, synchronicitous approach to character and story that Roeg consistently explores. And yet, both films much, much more acutely represent this “total immersion” than Trance.
Because Trance is a cold, calculated piece of work in every respect. It is as clinical and mechanical as Ridley’s Hollywood product, but made on a limited budget that allows Boyle to flourish his credentials as “still edgy” and “still credible”. What it really illustrates is how staid and predictable his approach has become, how cocooned he now is within a formula he cannot escape. At a number of points I was put in mind Sir Ridley’s token confrontation with a tricky narrative with Matchstick Men; flawed as that film is, it’s an altogether more interesting, and relatively successful, piece of work than Trance.
Boyle also doesn’t appear to acknowledge that this type of twisty construction is ten-a-penny, and was over-familiar a decade ago when Scott delivered Matchstick Men. Unless you’re going to deliver something truly innovative and inspired you will find yourself running through a tired collection of tropes and tricks that will quickly exhaust an audience; the danger is, ironically, that the relentlessly hyperactive mind games will become dull.
And this art heist thriller is so self-consciously, and transparently, dedicated to style over substance, that it does exactly that. What Boyle seems to completely miss is that you can get up to all manner of narrative hijinks, but if you are not invested in the fates of the characters it is all to no avail.
The director is seemingly transfixed by the plot’s Russian doll layering, as various parties attempt to get to the root of where James McAvoy's auctioneer has secreted a stolen painting. McAvoy’s character, Simon, heavily indebted due to a gambling addiction, suggests the theft of a Goya to crime boss Frank (Vincent Cassel). Simon double-crosses his partners in crime but they refrain from retribution due to his amnesia regarding the location of the painting. So, Rosario Dawson’s Harley Street hypnotherapist (Elizabeth) is called upon to get to the bottom of things.
Boyle plasters on the flashy camera work and wall-to-wall dance soundtrack. In that sense he's taking his cues directly from 127 Hours and. Let’s face it, much of his other work. The glib approach to plotting reveals recalls Slumdog Millionaire, but at least that film had characters to root for. Here, the intricate clever-clever attitude is hollow at the core, leaving the viewer unmoved by each progressive revelation (and less and less inclined to swallow the more and more unlikely contrivances). There’s no veneer of thematic or emotional depth to disguise the shallowness (one might point to Elizabeth, but her backstory is pure convenience, at the service of how devious the writers think they are being).
As a return to the thriller genre, he seems to be willfully summoning comparisons with his debut, Shallow Grave. But for all the misanthropy of the characters in that film, they were compelling. Curiously, Boyle has seized on a 12-year old TV movie to adapt, one originally written and directed by Joe Ahearne. Ahearne is probably best known for his 1998 TV series Ultraviolet (also adapted into a movie). Frequent Boyle collaborator John Hodge was brought on board, but this is Hodge of the pedigree of his work on A Life Less Ordinary and The Beach (but not quite flatlining as on The Sweeney); certainly nothing like the brilliance of their first two films together.
Shallow Grave cleverly employed several switches in allegiance as it progressed, but Hodge and Boyle spent a significant amount of time getting to know the characters at the outset (in a film a good 10 minutes shorter than the pacy Trance). Here, they are required to engage in several crude shifts in perspective that telegraph some of the revelations to come. It’s actually the kind of plot you might expect Hitchcock to go for, or maybe De Palma, but both would have taken the opportunity to embellish. They would have expanded upon any given set piece in a quest for visual elegance and artfulness, rather than stirring it all up into a hyper-kinetic stew.
McAvoy and Cassel provide fairly standard turns; they’re doing the kind of thing you’ve seen them do before, and are as proficient as you’d expect. More impressive is Dawson, mainly because I've not seen her in many notable roles. That said, the justification for showing off her shaved nether regions is the sort of gratuitous exploitation that would make Paul Verhoeven giddy with delight; if he’d made the film, at least there’d have been a direct and honest answer to, “What attracted you to Trance in the first place?” It’s all the more scurrilous because the scene’s presence is borderline incoherent as a “vital” plot device (surely the most likely reason for a male character preferring his ladies bare is a diet of internet porn?) It’s almost amusing in an inept kind of way, but it most suggests that this is a middle-aged filmmaker short of inspiration beyond a lovingly framed hairless snatch.
There’s also something slightly queasy about the way Boyle tries to pump-up his tawdry tale with a euphoric dance soundtrack (from Underworld’s Rick Smith). Again, he appears to be tugging on the hem of past glories. But his use of music in Shallow Grave and (particularly) Trainspotting defined the zeitgeist. Here, he is just pasting upbeat ephemera onto characters you are unable to identify with and a plot whose darkness struggles uncomfortably with such zesty orange juice infusions.
In the closing scenes that he appears to be attempting something approximating the breezy, confident tone of The Thomas Crown Affair (the remake). What he’s actually come up with is an iPad-assisted (its ridiculously prevalent in the movie, so I hope Apple contributed to the budget) mess, where character motivation is so confused that relationships appear to be redrawn out of desperation (to enable a final piece of communication/exposition). Also, any supposedly “clever” film reduced to OTT car smash spectacle most definitely reveals itself as running on empty.
Perhaps Boyle and Scott should team up in a quest for decent screenplays. There’s no doubt about Danny Boyle’s skills as a director, even if his last two pictures suggest that restraint is sometimes better than beating your audience into submission. I’d concluded at one point that the Andrew Garland was the malign influence preventing him from beating a path back to strong material. Sunshine, in particular, is probably the closest Boyle has come to the kind of film he admires Roeg for… in the first half, before it falls apart completely. But his collaborations with Simon Beaufoy have done nothing to rebalance him, and now not even John Hodge can set him straight.
Maybe he should go and make a Bond movie; it might be a much-needed enema that gets him motivated to find really strong material and a different approach to his screen craft. He definitely needs to quit with his oft-mentioned desire to make Porno. I may sound like I hated Trance. I didn’t; it’s an entertaining but insubstantial, over-familiar, head-trip movie. Distracting enough to make 100 minutes pass with energy and verve, but so superficial that you wonder why Boyle bothered at all.