FILM FORTNIGHT: Trance

OK, I know that technically I’ve already done my scheduled fortnight, but shush; at time of writing I only saw this yesterday, and wanted to get my thoughts off ma chest.

This film is… different, but then again I did kinda expect it to be. Psychological thrillers are rarely simple affairs, but most tend to generate their weirdness from either a confusing, tangential plot or by employing every trick of cinematography in the book in an effort to mess with your brain. Trance does neither of these things, but nonetheless this is most certainly not your average mid-afternoon popcorn film.

The plot centres around an art heist; our main protagonist is Simon (James McAvoy), a young art auctioneer who gets himself mixed up in a plot to rob a Goya painting, ‘Witches In The Air’. However, for reasons that can’t really be explained without giving away any spoilers (the film’s somewhat odd storytelling structure makes it a veritable spoiler minefield), and in some respects are never fully explained at all, the painting manages to go missing. Blame for this falls squarely on Simon, who is suffering that old cinematic trope of amnesia, leading him to not remember what has happened to it. Indeed, one of the characters even puts in a subtle meta-commentary to this effect- but I’m getting sidetracked. Suffice it to say that the group, or more specifically their leader Frank (Vincent Cassel) pick hypnosis as a potential solution; and here the word ‘psychological’ rapidly prefixes itself onto the tag of ‘thriller’.

Amnesia as a plot device is a cliché seemingly as old as the hills, but here it gets the Danny Boyle treatment, and a subsequent new lease of life. Other reviewers have frequently compared the film to Inception for its superficially similar subject matter of the human mind, and it could be argued that what Inception did with dreams Trance attempts to do with memory. However, the comparison is not an especially valid one; whereas Inception was a fast-paced action film that perfectly showcased Christopher Nolan’s talent for scope and grand gestures, Trance is a far smaller affair that plays to Boyle’s strengths of bringing out the little moments. Here, the concept of memory is not only used as the core plot concept, but after being taken as it stands, it is summarily twisted, bent, lost, found, stamped all over, made to run around in circles for three hours, soaked, wrung out to dry and then left in a tangled mess that renders the simplicity of the original concept almost unrecognisable. Suffice it to say that this film most certainly does not take the obvious route with its subject matter.

Tinkering on the minute level is also evident in the film’s plot, an equally twisted affair that makes a marked departure for the more straightline storytelling of the other Boyle films I’ve seen. This might have something to do that this is the first of Boyle’s films for a while not to be based on a pre-existing book (see Trainspotting, Millions, Slumdog Millionaire & 127 Hours) have been based on screenplays adapted from existing books, but here we have an entirely fresh script, co-written by Joe Ahearne and John Hodge. The latter, I glean from a little research, was something of a Boyle regular during his early career (this is their fifth film together), and some stylistic similarities between this and their most famous collaboration (Trainspotting) become clear once you realise the link exists.

For the film’s first hour, Trance doesn’t offer much that could be said to be special; it’s an unconventional but perfectly understandable film that is written, directed and acted well, but doesn’t seem like it’s going to break any major rules. The first and second acts establish a few character relationships, a few ideas that look like they’re going to become important later on, nothing especially out of the ordinary. Indeed, if you’re anything like me, then you’ll think you’ve figured out what ‘The Big Twist’ will be somewhere around the hour mark, and will be just about ready to start feeling smug when the third act kicks in. And kick in it does; not only are the pace and tension each cranked up several notches, but the plot’s initial strangeness begins to give way to mayhem as chronology shifts back and forth, the worlds of hypnosis and reality begin to converge and the film’s themes and story really begin to twist themselves into the aforementioned tangles. Everything made out to be some important concept, a feature that we are sure will turn out to be important, is left by the wayside, and all the small details, slipped in so subtly and hidden so well, take on new significance- a peculiar reversal that, when I think about it, I’m surprised ever worked. That it does is testament to the way every contributor to the film begins to show their class during this period; James McAvoy puts the finishing touches on a stunningly versatile acting performance that covers just about every emotion and character trope known to humankind, whilst co-star Rosario Dawson (who plays hypnotherapist Elizabeth Lamb) begins to show the character beneath all the subtle woman-of-mystery stuff from the second act. Boyle too puts himself on show; all the careful execution of the first two acts, all the subtlety and false leads, all the things only hinted at through the minutiae of character behaviour, all are finally paid off in his chaotic finale, and it shows his skill off marvellously.

However.

I can appreciate an awful lot of things about Trance. I can appreciate the fantastic acting, I can appreciate the clever, intriguing storytelling, I can certainly appreciate the directorial skill. But somehow… I find I can’t quite enjoy it. Maybe it’s something to do with having unsympathetic characters, nobody we can ever think of as a hero (or, for that matter, antihero), maybe it’s that the plot doesn’t really have any consistent underlying emotional scenes, or maybe it’s just that all the things that really matter by the end are not given enough time to make themselves feel meaningful, amidst the mayhem of the third act. Honestly, I’m not quite sure, but it’s a shame, frankly; Trance is smart, quirky, exceptionally well done and tells a story like nothing else. I only wish it could feel meaningful too.

One last thing; how in the name of hell this film was given a 15 rating I have no idea. I don’t really have an opinion on the BBFC rating system, whether it’s appropriate and so forth, but I do have an opinion that if you have an 18 rating and a film with torture, nudity about as blatant as it comes, rather graphic gore, enough corpses to keep a coroner busy for a month and it doesn’t get it… well what the hell is an 18 then?

OK, I quite liked doing this, so I think I might make film reviews a bit more of a regular thing. I might even get round to making a category for them. Might.

Advertisements

FILM FORTNIGHT: The History Boys

OK, back to films this time, specifically The History Boy. Something of an old favourite of mine, the kind of thing I occasionally catch myself running through in my head. And with the death just a few weeks ago of one of the film’s stars Richard Griffiths, it seemed only right to turn my gaze to it now. So…,

There is a particular type of film that attempts to be compelling by getting rid of almost all the distractions of plot in favour of plundering the rich resources posed by character, behaviour, context and emotional development. The storyline of such films tend to be based around small scenes that mean very little on their own but serve largely as a framework for the important parts of the film itself to play out around them; a nice idea, if it can be pulled off. Done wrong and we are left with two hours of tedium whilst a bunch of theatrical hipsters pretend to hold the emotional and intellectual high ground, and a lot is left down to the sheer ability of the actors concerned to execute their roles; it’s one of the reasons why reading Shakespeare out of a textbook is so much less compelling than a well-executed live performance, and why so many schoolchildren get turned off by it. That, combined with the overly florid Elizabethan language, and the fact that they have to study Twelfth Night.

The History Boys is, thankfully, burdened by neither of the latter two issues, but its format makes the former a major point of potential worry; set in a Sheffield school in 1983, our story opens with eight history student getting their A-level grades, and very well they’ve done too. For this reason, the school (and its rather ambitious headmaster, Clive Merrison’s Felix) encourages them to apply to read history at Oxbridge, for which they need to take an entrance exam that will require another term’s schooling and revision. The other main players are their teachers: history teacher Mrs. Lintott (Francis de la Tour), specialist exam-preparation teacher Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore) and the colourful General Studies teacher Hector (Griffiths). “General Studies” here being taken as a rather loose term.

The teachers are the main source of the film’s drama; Irwin, recruited at the start of the film, offers up a totally different approach to the boys’ previous teaching style and, indeed, a different perspective on history itself, which results in one or two moments that strike a little close to the bone for some. Then we have Hector, who doesn’t teach so much as mess around in a classroom for a couple of hours, before offering the boys a lift home on his moped and casually groping them along the way. Whilst the boys have an amicable relationship with him over this, it’s kind of obvious to see that this isn’t going to end well.

It should be pointed out that all of this is established within the first 20 minutes of the film, and indeed there is practically no plot movement in the centre of the film; it is all left open purely for character interaction and development. This ‘interaction’ is frequently rather risqué in nature, but for such a serious, deeply emotional film it’s surprising the extent to which the film seems determined to have fun and enjoy itself; credit must go to Alan Bennett (the writer of the original play) for managing to inject so much humour into the piece. The actors also appear suffused with the spirit of the thing, and turn out some wonderful performances; special mention must go to Dominic Cooper for a starring turn as the sexually-charged, rather aggressively bright Dakin, and Griffiths, who at no point in the entire film looks like he’s acting rather than just doing what comes naturally. However, none of that changes the fact that this is a film built around practically nothing happening, and looking back now I struggle to visualise how the rather confused web of scenes fit together, and how indeed the film manages to make any sense at all.

However, no matter how much I try to apply fridge logic to the situation, the fact is that it simply does; it’s just that well done. Nicholas Hytner’s film is so engrossing and insidiously enthralling that everything becomes just about the characters, as if one is in fact part of this eclectic little group and this is your life playing out around you. These are your friends, your mentors, the people you laugh with, the people you cry over; it’s a slice of life at its most real yet most compelling, and most beautiful. 99 times out of 100 this sort of thing surely wouldn’t work, but by its being sit at a point in these boys’ lives that is so pivotal, and by framing it in such a fantastically well-executed manner, the realism of the event manages to feel purposeful rather than meandering. There’s something deeply satisfying, like watching an old friend come good, about watching the way these characters develop and grow over 100 minutes’ screentime, and it’s all very… right, somehow. And that’s even before we get to the ending; a tear-jerking third act that manages to hit every point on the emotional spectrum before cascading into a bittersweet crescendo of beauty and hope that would strike dumb even the most loquacious of critics. I could spend all day analysing every little intricate moment of these few minutes, every emotional tug and every moment of simultaneous hope and pain, but am restricted by both my wish not to spoil anything and my wish not to write something 5000 words long.

The History Boys is many things; relatively slow, rather lacking in plot and based around a decidedly unconventional idea being among them. But it honestly doesn’t matter; when a film attempts to mean this much, and pulls it off with such spectacular aplomb, any attempt to degrade it somewhat misses the point. If you haven’t watched it yet, then you’re missing out on something special.