Danny Boyle has directed a number of psychological mindfucks in his day (Trainspotting, The Beach, etc.), as well as his share of uplifting fare (A Life Less Ordinary–in its own way–and Slumdog Millionaire), but Trance is unlike anything he has done before. Beyond the premise of Joe Ahearne and John Hodge’s (who also wrote the scripts for Trainspotting, A Life Less Ordinary and The Beach) screenplay, what makes Trance so unique from the rest of Boyle’s films is that he has never truly explored a genre geared so heavily toward the psychological thriller. At times, this inexperience is apparent, and it is in these moments that the weaknesses of Trance become too overpowering.
Simon (James McAvoy), a seemingly mild-mannered fine art auctioneer for a London auction house called Delancy’s, is smitten with a recently acquired Francisco de Goya painting, “Witches in the Air,” which will easily fetch over 25 million pounds in the upcoming auction. His precise training in how to react in the event of a robbery kicks in when an underworld criminal named Franck (the always appealing Vincent Cassel), storms into the building with three of his muscle men to steal the painting. Throughout the robbery, the combined voiceover and direct communication Simon has with the camera leads us to believe that this could be a truly sympathetic character. But, as Simon receives a blow to the head from Franck while trying to save the painting, the course of the narrative quickly shifts to one of occasional violence and few moments of inspiredness–with no characters to look to for any source of affinity.
When Simon wakes up in the hospital to learn what has happened–and that he’s been dubbed something of a hero by the London press–they decide that he is well enough to be released. Reluctant to leave the safety of the hospital, we soon discover that Simon’s fear stems from the fact that he was in league with Franck the entire time in order to pay off his massive gambling debt to a loan shark. In exchange for Franck’s clearing of his debt, Simon agreed to help him steal the painting. The only problem is, Simon can’t remember where he put the painting and is having trouble explaining why he tried to keep it for himself in the first place. After an intense scene of torture in which Simon’s fingernails are ripped off, it becomes evident to Franck that he genuinely doesn’t remember where he’s hidden the work of art. Asking advice from Simon’s doctor, it is suggested to Franck that hypnotherapy might be the best way for Simon to retrieve his memories more rapidly than simply waiting for them to return.
With no other choice but to do as Franck tells him, Simon picks a therapist “at random” named Elizabeth Lamb (Rosario Dawson)–he likes the name, he says. Upon arriving, he chooses the pseudonym “Mr. Maxwell” and the fake story of having lost his keys and being unable to find them. Elizabeth immediately puts him in a hypnotic state, but is unable to maintain it as Franck deliberately calls his cell phone after Simon starts to reveal too much. At the next session, Elizabeth puts on a recording of her talking and proceeds to show Simon a series of flashcards asking him if he’s in trouble and to what extent. She then grabs the mic he’s concealing underneath his shirt and demands to speak to whoever is listening in. Once Elizabeth meets Franck and his lackeys, Nate (Danny Sapani), Dominic (Matt Cross) and Riz (Wahab Sheikh), they confess all to her so that she may assist Simon in remembering to his fullest ability.
As Elizabeth delves into Simon’s mind, it is clear that he is suppressing another memory that is preventing him from remembering where the painting is. As a result, Simon starts to fixate on Elizabeth, conjuring images of his fantasies of her. At the same time, Elizabeth starts to develop a rapport with Franck, inciting Simon’s jealousy once he finds out. Soon, Simon isn’t sure if he can even trust what’s real and what isn’t, which leads to one of the better scenes in the movie: Vincent Cassel with half of his head sliced off. As the plot begins to unravel, the twist you were expecting doesn’t seem all that impressive considering the buildup to it. But, on the plus side, at least Rick Smith came up with the original music and there’s some beautiful artwork to look at throughout the film.