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No Oil Painting ~ Danny Boyle’s Trance

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At first look, Trance seems like a good bet: it follows hot on the heels of Danny Boyle’s Olympic glory, as well as critical and popular hits such as 28 Days Later and Slumdog Millionaire. In it, Boyle fuses a familiar London crime tale (complete the an ethnically diverse gang of gruff, gun-toting mobsters) with the mind-bending ambiguity of Inception. Except – it doesn’t quite work. Trance is a visual feast that is ultimately devoid of nutrition.

The film starts promisingly enough, as James McAvoy’s charming auctioneer is caught up in an art heist – a bit like a more violent Hustle, complete with 4th-wall-busting monologue. But it soon transpires that McAvoy’s Simon is in on the ruse, and only he knows the location of the missing painting (Goya’s Three Witches Hanging in the Air). To the frustration of the mobsters, due to a knock on the head he has amnesia. Enter Rosario Dawson’s sexy hypnotherapist, Elizabeth, to uncover the hidden secret. From here the story lurches from one ludicrous twist to another, leaving the viewer cold.

Boyle took a break from post-production in order to produce the opening ceremony – perhaps it’s this that has led to the film’s failure to engage. Or perhaps it’s the padding necessary to turn a 2001 TV movie into a full-length feature. Whatever the cause, Trance wastes the acting talent on offer by making the characters little more than ciphers that we are unable to understand at more than a superficial level. The trite dialogue is as much at fault here as the plot twists.

A particularly infuriating aspect of this is the treatment of Elizabeth. Boyle has mentioned in several interviews that he wanted to make Trance his first female-centric movie. Mr. Boyle – you failed.

The chief issue is that Elizabeth becomes just another ‘McGuffin’  – aside from the painting, it is she who becomes the chief object of the men’s desire (McAvoy and paint-by-numbers crime boss Vincent Cassel). The link between their lust for the painting and their lust for her is heightened by the use of her body as a physical canvas, through the means of some weirdly over-emphasised pubic topiary. Then there’s the way Boyle’s camera lingers on his ex-girlfriend’s (admittedly great) body. There is always something uncomfortable about a film in which you know the director is/about to start shagging their subject (vis the lasciviously creepy ‘Nowhere Boy’). Boyle’s desire becomes a patent as the characters’, reducing Elizabeth (at least for the majority of the movie) to nothing more than an object, who, despite possessing intelligence and skill, must use sex to achieve her ends.

Frustratingly, the film never really grapples with these ideas of art, aesthetic and desire, beyond providing Simon with a curious sexual pecadillo. Additionally ripe for exploration is the link between Elizabeth, a woman who can work ‘magic’ via hypnosis, and the witches of Goya’s painting. With her mysterious air and exotic beauty, she conforms to ancient stereotypes of the beguiling woman – like Euripides’ Medea or Homer’s Circe. This misogynistic trope is not undermined (as Boyle claims), nor is it made empowering. Rather, it casts Elizabeth in the role of feminine destroyer.

Visually, the film doesn’t disappoint. Boyle uses his trademark vivd colours, with light used particularly well to create a vibrant, pulsing image of London. Reflections are used to heighten the psychological drama, in a way that will surely delight the hearts of GCSE Media students everywhere. However, like everything in this movie, it is all surface glamour. Trance ends up saying nothing about anything and will leave you feeling a bit robbed yourself.

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