Trance (2013) – Inception at Sotherbys

Synopsis: An art auctioneer (James McAvoy) who has become mixed up with a group of criminals partners up with a hypnotherapist (Rosario Dawson) in order to recover a lost painting.

My Take

As I walked out of the cinema with my buddy Matt, talking about what we had just seen, it transpired about half way through that we’d both had similar dilemmas to the: concentrate super hard on every minor detail in multi-layered narrative of Trance in case I need to remember it for later, or trust that Danny Boyle will take me there, reveal everything when he is ready. We both, as it happens, have equal trust in Danny Boyle and sat back to let the pulsating sound and vivid images wash over us.


It’s difficult to talk in detail about Trance without giving too much away. Like The Usual Suspects or The Prestige it relies on drip feeding you small pay offs as it twists and turns to it’s climax. The opening pre-credit scenes see high end art auctioneer Simon (James McAvoy) narrating the difficulties of stealing high value art from auction houses and the procedure for reacting in the event of one. A procedure built on the foundations of two simple principles: save the most expensive piece in the room; and don’t be a hero. As he points out, no piece of art is worth more than a human life.

Unfortunately, for reasons that are initially unapparent, Simon breaks both of these rules as tries to stop the heist of a £27m painting, orchestrated by Frank (Vincent Cassel) and his crew. In return Frank (Vincent Cassel) nails him in the head with the butt of his shotgun before making off with the painting, leaving Simon in a crumpled heap. However, on returning to their HQ the thieves are confronted not with the painting, but with an empty frame. They’ve been double crossed. All throughout this Boyle cuts to close ups of Simon relaying the events straight into the camera, a face of regret and knowing that he is reliving the pre-amble to a sequence of terrible events we are yet to know.

It is as pulsating a start to a movie as I have seen in a long time. In fact it reminded me of a much darker version of the heist sequence from the Pierce Brosnan remake of The Thomas Crown Affair (1996), as the music builds and builds as we are lead through the corridors of the art world.

Cold cocking Simon in the head unfortunately leaves him with amnesia and if Frank and his crew are to ever recover the painting then they need to get him to remember where he stashed the painting and why he double crossed them in the first place. After trying the usual techniques of “enhanced interrogation” they decide to try a more unique approach. Hypnotherapy. In particular Dr Elizabeth Lamb (Rosario Dawson) who spends her days in her Harley Street surgery treating the well off for over-eating and premature ejaculation. From the moment Simon walks in to her surgery it is obvious she is more invested in the situation than she lets on. And it is within the dynamic of Simon, Elizabeth and Frank that we spend the rest of the movie.

To say anymore about the story line would be to give things away. Needless to say most people will know that there are twists and turns, people aren’t who they seem. But to what degree their involvement and motivations is where the payoffs exist.

Rosario Dawson

Outside of the storyline though, which twists and turns like a fidgety rollercoaster, scattering red herrings like fishy confetti, their are two standout performances.

The first is from the ensemble cast of Dawson, McAvoy and Cassel. All three are enigmatic, exuding a vibrant chemistry that burns through the screen. You always believe there is a dark underbelly to Simon and Elizabeth, two normal people caught up in a world of brutal gentleman thieves. McAvoy and Cassel in particular demonstrate they are true movie stars. Actors who command your attention for every second they are on screen. Dawson also bears all (very literally at a couple of points) for her performance. It is a tour de force from all three.

The second is Danny Boyle’s brilliant use of contemporary music to build up crescendos of breathtaking visual and aural climaxes. Boyle knows how to use modern music and artists to complement the visual emotions of a scene better than many of his peers. Trance is split into segments punctuated by scenes that take anywhere from 5 to 10 minutes to play out, all building to these huge crescendos of both story and sound. The original score for the film was done by Rick Smith from Underworld and the use of slow, layered beats to build up to pulsating electro percussion climaxes made my mouth run dry. Boyle used it to very similar effect in 28 Days Later and Trance is definitely his best use of music in this way since his high watermark modern zombie classic. It made me want to listen to some Mogwai and Godspeed You Black Emperor! when I got home just to continue that feeling.

Trance 3

There are strong resemblances to Inception in the way Boyle brings you in an out of reality. At first it is obvious when you are being transported in and around Simon’s subconscious as he is guided by Elizabeth’s calm and controlling voice. But the deeper Boyle takes us into the dynamics of the relationship between the three leads, the harder it becomes to determine what is real and what are memories. The recurring use of a plot device to jolt Simon, which may or may not reveal a deeper secret, is a firm favourite of Christopher Nolan.

There are also Cronenbergian moments of visceral violence as things descend into chaos. Gents, fair warning: one scene will have you grabbing for your junk like there is no tomorrow.

If Trance has a fault it is that there are one to many twists and contrivances as it builds to it’s final resting spot. They aren’t so much false endings as they are stepping stones to working out who exactly everyone is and why they did what they did. Each one is relevant but there are possibly one or two too many. But it is a small criticism of a great film. If you trust in Danny Boyle getting you to the end as we did you’ll find yourself hypnotised by the sound and images washing over you throughout the course of this aesthetically and aurally gorgeous, if fairly bonkers, movie.

Conclusion: Another example of why Danny Boyle is arguably the greatest living British director and in the top 5 of any of his peers working in Hollywood. Steven Soderbergh is often lauded as the best at being able to make movies in any genre. I would argue that side by side, Danny Boyle’s back catalogue is pushing that claim right to the edge.

Verdict: 8/10


Director: Danny Boyle – The star jewel in the crown of British directorial talent along with Christopher Nolan and Tom Hooper. I am not going to go into his history here but if you don’t know his back catalogue then stop reading this, rent or buy everything he has done and come back when you are done.

Writers: John Hodge – regular Boyle collaborator who has previously worked with him on Shallow Grave, Trainspotting and A Life Less Ordinary. Also working on Trainspotting follow up Porno, which is also being directed by Danny Boyle; Joe Ahearne – mostly involved in TV work including Dr Who, he wrote and directed the TV movie Trance (2001) on which Trance (2013) is based

Cast: James McAvoy, Rosario Dawson, Vincent Cassel, Danny Sapani, Matt Cross, Wahab Sheikh, Mark Poltimore, Tuppence Middleton


Currently on wide release at theatres Worldwide


4 replies »

  1. Not Boyle’s best, but still a bunch of fun if you like to be left in the dark about certain characters and plot points. Good review.

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