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Movies & TV

27th Mar 2023

10 years ago, the makers of Trainspotting reunited for a supremely underrated thriller

Stephen Porzio


Underappreciated at the time of its release, it is streaming on Disney+ now.

In 2012, filmmaker Danny Boyle must have felt on top of the world.

Having already directed the bonafide classics Shallow Grave, Trainspotting and 28 Days Later, he had rebounded from the commercial flop of Sunshine (another great but underappreciated movie) with 2008’s Slumdog Millionaire, which wound up winning eight Oscars – including Best Picture and Best Director.

He then followed this up with the critical and commercial hit 127 Hours – another Oscar Best Picture nominee – before being chosen as the artistic director for the opening ceremony of the 2012 Summer Olympics in London.

That said, after a string of mainstream movies, Boyle was eager to make something akin to his earlier work – darker and more ill-disciplined. As such, he returned to a script that had slid across his desk in the ’90s that he had not forgotten about, a genre-bending thriller written by Joe Aherne (Da Vinci’s Demons, This Life) titled Trance that had gone on to be made into a TV film in 2001.

Boyle’s frequent writing collaborator John Hodge (Shallow Grave, Trainspotting, The Beach) was then recruited to do an overhaul of the original script by Aherne. Once the screenplay was ready, the director carved out time amongst his Olympics opening prep to shoot the picture.

‘Dark and delicious’

Speaking of his decision to work simultaneously on both the Olympics opening and an adult-aimed thriller full of sex and violence, Boyle told Indiewire:

“A lot of people speak very highly of those Olympics, and dark though it is, Trance was partly responsible for keeping us sane in the Olympics, because the Olympics would drive you nuts. But to be able to take a break and make something dark and delicious really keeps you sane for your family-friendly kind of entertainment that you’re working on. For the pride of the nation entertainment that you’re working on, you need to be working on the dark nightmares at nighttime.”

Released in cinemas on 27 March 2013, dark and delicious Trance is. The film centres around Simon (James McAvoy), an art auctioneer with a gambling addiction. In the hole for a lot of money, he winds up becoming the inside man for a theft being orchestrated by criminal Franck (Vincent Cassel) of a priceless Goya painting on auction where Simon works.

However, after mysteriously stashing the painting, Simon gets a knock on the head in the midst of the robbery. Because of this, he suffers from a case of amnesia and cannot remember where and why he hid the artwork. In response, Franck recruits hypnotherapist Elizabeth (Rosario Dawson) in an effort to cure Simon’s amnesia and recover the lost Goya. A love (or lust triangle) winds up developing between the three, as well as a battle for control of an increasingly twisted situation.

The Opening Heist

As evident from Trainspotting, Boyle knows how to craft a thrilling opening and the beginning of Trance honestly comes close to rivalling that of his masterwork. The movie begins with a ten-minute scene in which McAvoy’s Simon speaks directly to the camera about the history of art thefts and the measures that galleries have instituted to combat such crimes and give themselves a sense of security.

However, this is then juxtaposed with Franck and his crew carrying out the robbery of the Goya painting at Simon’s place of work, highlighting all the ways criminals can bypass such measures. After all, as Simon summarises in the opening: “Some things don’t change, it still takes muscle and it still takes nerve.”

Set to a bouncy mix of electro and rock music that also recalls the Trainspotting soundtrack, the sequence is deliriously fun, establishing the supposed order of the gallery space before it erupts into chaos.

And though Trance shifts after this point from being a straight-up heist movie into a more psychological and erotic thriller, the opening does establish what seems to be Boyle’s ultimate goal for the rest of the runtime – to flex all the cinematic skills he had learned up to that point to make something with no illusions other than being entertaining and strictly for adults (something which, in an era of superhero flicks, has become rarer and rarer since the film’s release).


Speaking about Trance and his penchant for darker stories in that same interview with Indiewire, Boyle says:

“The pleasure in storytelling is really rich when you’re in that darker territory cause it’s not like you’re kind of trying to teach anybody any lessons. It’s just, this is the pleasure of cinema – we love going to places and watching… sexy psycho-thrillers.”

Strictly for adults

And this is not to say that there are no deeper elements in Aherne and Hodge’s script. The movie does touch upon topics like abuse, obsession and the clash between reality and people’s individual perceptions of reality. Plus, in what could be considered feminist, the film establishes Simon as the audience protagonist as it starts, before gradually revealing Dawson’s hypnotherapist character Elizabeth as a far more worthy figure for viewers to root for.

That said, it could be easy to miss these elements amidst a plot filled with gripping double-crosses and twists, as well as Boyle’s kinetic direction. In terms of the latter, Trance features endless dutch and slanted angles, settings often lit almost exclusively by neon lights and scenes that swap and blur between what is happening in certain characters’ literal minds to what is happening in reality to the point where audiences have no idea what is real or not.

With all these cinematic tricks – on top of some inventive moments like bullets being passed covertly between two characters through a kiss or Simon having a vision of himself talking to a character who has just had half of his head blown off by a gun – there is barely a moment in the film that is not interesting to look at – which, as critic Mark Kermode noted, feels appropriate given that one of its recurring motifs is priceless paintings.

Rosario Dawson in Trance

Perhaps Trance’s apparent lack of deeper elements or moral lessons (along with its adult content) led to the film’s muted response by audiences and critics upon release – it currently holds a 69% score on Rotten Tomatoes and only grossed $24.3 million on a $20 million budget. That said, it has also made Trance an easy movie to rewatch at home, where you can really just enjoy and savour all of its visual pleasures and uncover the little details in its labyrinthine plot you may have missed upon first viewing.

Trance is streaming on Disney+ in Ireland and the UK.

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