He has won an Oscar. He has got HM the Queen to act alongside Daniel Craig. What’s next for director Danny Boyle? Answer: a remake. Boyle isn’t just turning TRANCE, Joe Ahearne’s obscure, ‘not available on DVD, yes, just like the original MEET THE PARENTS, what, you didn’t know that was a remake’ thriller into a film to be seen by millions, perhaps five million, let’s crunch the numbers some other time. He’s remaking himself, styling a film with the verve, energy and pumping soundtrack of his feature debut, SHALLOW GRAVE.
You remember that one: two blokes (Christopher Eccleston, Ewan McGregor) and a woman (Kerry Fox) fight over a wodge of cash. Well, twenty years later, TRANCE has two blokes (Vincent Cassel, James McAvoy) and a woman (Rosario Dawson) fight over a painting (by Goya, worth £27 million, or nearest offer).
What’s the difference? TRANCE is about regaining your memory. For Boyle, this is like regaining the memory of making a first feature. ‘What? It’s going to be seen in a darkened room by hundreds of people at the same time? Bloody marvellous!’
More than that, TRANCE articulates what makes Danny Boyle an auteur. He makes films about people desperate to get out of their current situation. Whether it is Aron Ralston stuck under a rock, street kids in poverty, a drug taker wrestling with his habit, a backpacker looking for the perfect sunrise or a lone guy stuck in London in the middle of a zombie outbreak (please see 127 HOURS, SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE, TRAINSPOTTING, THE BEACH and 28 DAYS LATER for more details) these people want out. Out of their current malaise! Their poop hole! Their rut! Their minimal expectation life! You can see Danny Boyle got out of it. He took a spaceship into the sun (SUNSHINE). Bloody marvellous!
Let’s not forget the signature image from TRAINSPOTTING: Renton (Ewan McGregor) clambering out of a toilet, not just any toilet but one described by Irvine Welsh as ‘the worst toilet in the world’. What’s that exactly? The one where your dropped your gear but you cannae flush. You have to fish around the foot long floaters, feel piss go under your fingernails, your hand suddenly stuck. Dear God. Dear God Mother!
There is an expression: ‘you’ve got to get out to get on.’ In Boyle’s case: ‘you’ve got to get in to get out’, in other words return to your roots, the British film industry, where it’s not so bad if you made a $100 million hit from a book (Q AND A) that people did not think of as a winner.
So he has. He has made a film about a compulsive gambler Simon (James McAvoy) who is also an auctioneer. Simon, our anti-hero has accumulated huge debts, sums that he cannot pay back. He is a sub-prime mortgage in a smart suit with a cheeky smile, a bad luck Charlie. Why did he gamble when he had the nice flat? Who cares? He is in a hole, stuck under a rock. He didn’t tell his mother where he was going. (See 127 HOURS.) So he has to cut off a limb. He makes friends with Frank (Vincent Cassel), a gangster, a French gangster. What’s he doing in London? Why, he has freedom of movement within the EU, of course! I’d like to see British gangsters trying to do gangster stuff in France (‘yeah, let’s shake down the banlieu, or I would if I could say it’). Not English-speaking gangsters in Bruges because we’ve had that.
So Frank says, ‘I need your help to steal me a painting, that one by Goya, weeping angels’. (Weeping angels? Weren’t they in DR WHO? Never mind.) Simon says, ‘OK. Then debt forgotten?’ (You miss out verbs when you’re under stress.) Frank replies, ‘of course’ (‘bien sur’).
So here we are at the beginning of TRANCE and our man Simon is setting the scene. He tells us that art thefts used to be simple. You’d go in, whack a couple of guards and run out, chased by a couple of peelers, blowing whistles and waving truncheons, inevitably recalled (photographed) in black and white. Today, auction houses got smarter. A whole set of protocols, where high value lots are deposited in drop boxes, well-protected while the robbers are apprehended by the fuzz. (Presumably they have a different drop box for expensive Ming vases, but I digress.) Only criminals have got clever too, with their imitation swipe cards, and access-all-areas super knowledge of procedure and ways to frustrate the extra muscle. Though when a van full of Eastern European heavies is blocked by a car, you think, why don’t they just move the van? Where’s the driver?
So Simon has given Frank the inside track. But he’s also doing his job, wanting to be above reproach. He follows the protocol. He tries to rescue the painting on behalf of its seller. Protocol says, ‘don’t be a hero!’ Simon tazers Frank, but not enough to knock him out. (Cassel played MESRINE, PUBLIC ENEMY NUMBER ONE; he’s no softie.) So Simon gets a knock to the head. He’s out. He’s bloody out. And the next thing we see he is waking up in hospital.
The villains meanwhile get back to their lair. Now, let’s regardez les goodies. Mais non, c’est disparu! That is French for the painting has gone walkies.
That’s the funny thing about twisty thrillers. They omit details. Like where was Simon found before he ended up in hospital?
Frank just wants the Goya and his goons are prepared to smash up Simon’s flat to find it. No joy. Then they get Frank and torture him. Nada! They look in his car. Do me a favour! Simon cannot remember. So Frank hires a hypnotherapist to unlock the secrets of his brain. Elizabeth (Rosario Dawson) is chosen by Simon. She has a Harley Street practice. Not cheap. He first approaches her under an assumed name. ‘I’ve lost my car keys.’ She puts him under. ‘They’re in the back of the wardrobe,’ he blurts. So they are.
The painting is not.
In their second session, Elizabeth realises things are not right. She plays a CD while she holds up cards to ask a series of questions: ‘Are you in trouble?’ ‘Does it involve a painting?’ ‘Are you doing the X MEN FIRST CLASS sequel this summer?’
Then she speaks directly into the microphone.
‘I want to speak to the men listening in.’
So now Elizabeth is working for Frank. She wants commission. ‘I want to be an equal partner.’ Frank is Frank. Sure. He’s working on putting her to bed, plying the Gallic charm that is sadly not evident on an average shopping day on the Chatelet les Halles.
Elizabeth says that Simon is being defensive. He cannot remember where the painting is because he has a deeper sense that the men are threatening to him. So she puts them under. Only one of Frank’s goons is suggestible. He imagines he is being buried alive – in a SHALLOW GRAVE, boom, boom!
Simon remembers something about a car – not the one they searched. He was hit by a car.
At this point, I should probably stop telling you the story and simply say that there are further twists. We learn about Elizabeth’s abusive relationship with her ex-lover and why Simon cannot recall his previous visit to a smart restaurant.
Just as in SHALLOW GRAVE, no character is blemish free. They all have their modus operandi. You might be disappointed that Frank doesn’t have a back story, but he is played by Cassel from IRREVERSIBLE, and you would not want Cassel’s back story – or backwardly told story – from that movie.
Deep in Boyle’s films is the idea of redemption. In SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE the protagonist wants to prove himself, to justify his story. Storytelling, the act of spinning a yarn, is important in Boyle’s films too, though not a constant feature. The really bad guys get their desserts. For the rest, there is frustration, for one there is escape. ‘Here’s a tablet. Look at it. You see this. You cannot have it.’
In Boyle’s films, if you don’t kill anybody, or anybody that is not a killer, you are all right. In one of his films, perhaps his most directly personal, A LIFE LESS ORDINARY (also his second-most self-consciously commercial film before THE BEACH and his biggest flop), angels are involved, though not like Nicolas Cage in CITY OF ANGELS or Bruno Ganz in DIE HIMMEL ÜBER BERLIN; they are played by Holly Hunter and Delroy Lindo. But Boyle has had a directorial life less ordinary and he’s entering the second cycle.
A point to note: Boyle intentionally reunited by SHALLOW GRAVE screenwriter John Hodge on TRANCE. He successfully captures that old feeling; he’s a man remade, like his stage production of FRANKENSTEIN.
Bring on the next escape yarn, but enjoy this one.