Watching a Danny Boyle film is never advisable if you’ve got a headache. The director may be approaching 60, but he’s lost none of his on-screen energy and volume; his style is one of frantic, kinetic activity, as characters sprint around while the soundtrack throbs louder and louder. Think of Ewan McGregor running from security guards in TrainspottingCillian Murphy running from rage-infested monsters in 28 Days Later, or Cillian Murphy again running to blow up a nuclear bomb in Sunshine. Boyle’s films aren’t often terribly reflective affairs, preferring to stimulate more adrenaline than thought.

So it’s a little surprising that his new film is so concerned with the workings of the mind – not exactly a setting that screams visual energy. But by following the example of Christopher Nolan’s Memento and Inception, Boyle has at least succeeded in making the mind an exciting place for the audience to explore.

The plot revolves around an art heist gone wrong. Simon (James McAvoy) works at an auction house, and knows its security setup well. So when his gambling debts start piling up, he decides to help criminal boss Franck (Vincent Cassel) steal a painting, Goya’s Witches in the Air. Predictably, though, it doesn’t go according to plan. The painting disappears, Simon gets a nasty bump on the head, and he can’t remember where it’s gone. All this leads him to the door of Elizabeth (Rosario Dawson), a hypnotherapist who tries to help Simon and Franck navigate the tricky corridors of memory.

On paper, this should be a perfect fit for the director. His most underrated (and I think his best) film is Sunshine, which brilliantly captures a crew’s collective psyche fracturing as they approach the sun. It’s both thrilling and emotional, as the plot races forward without looking to confuse or overtly impress. By contrast, Trance sets out to do both – without the same success.

In fact, perhaps the Nolan film this is closest to is The Prestige – both rely heavily on smoke and mirrors to conceal a plot that is, in the end, ludicrous. Run over the story in your mind afterwards, and it all becomes faintly ridiculous and unconvincing. The difference here is that while the presentation and flourish of The Prestige successfully distracted the audience from the less successful or convincing twists, Trance doesn’t pull off the same trick.

There are similar multiple reveals and revelations, but they never shock or surprise in the way they should. What should be subtle moments of foreshadowing are announced from a bullhorn – try not to notice, for example, Dawson’s constant touching of her throat. Boyle relies far too much on tricksy editing, dutch angles, and the requisite throbbing electronica from Underworld – all this in place of intelligent plotting, or genuine danger. One crucial failing is in the character of Franck. Though Cassel is charming and fairly compelling as the crime lord, his role is woefully undercooked: one minute he’s friendly, the next he’s supervising Simon having his fingernails pulled out. Yet this inconsistency doesn’t suggest an erratic or unstable criminal (like, say, Gary Oldman in Leon); instead, it just renders him fairly harmless. The audience doesn’t share Simon’s terror of Franck, and as a result, the tension is far too slack.

There are several MacGuffins littered throughout the film, each leading to the next thread in Simon’s mind, but they become progressively more ludicrous until the final, crucial one (and this is a mild spoiler): Rosario Dawson’s shaved vagina. Yes. The final third of this film revolves around a close-up of a Hollywood wax. Think of it as a MacMuffin.

Not this kind.

Though I know it’s meant to make the film more sexy, edgy and dangerous, as well as providing yet another crucial twist, it struck me as both ridiculous and uncomfortably gratuitous. Until this reveal, Dawson works admirably to make her character a strong, intriguing figure at the film’s centre, but once her bald bits become the focus, the film goes off the rails completely. Characters are totally inverted without much forethought, the violence goes full throttle (with a defenceless penis being shot pretty much point blank), and Dawson is given the thankless task of playing Basil Exposition in the final ten minutes.

It’s a shame, really. Danny Boyle throws all of his loud and energetic tricks at the screen, but they’re not strong enough to hide what is, in the end, a weak script. As the plot unravels, so does the tension, and no amount of sex and violence can stitch it back together. The final shot clearly wants to emulate the irresolution of Inception, frustrating and delighting the audience in equal measure – but by the end, the characters and plot have changed direction so many times that it’s difficult to care. All of Boyle’s energy and pyrotechnics can’t conceal a script that’s not nearly as clever as it thinks it is – and Boyle himself ends up as uncomfortably exposed as his female star.

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