Why Danny Boyle Should Have Made Trance in the Nineties
If you’ve been keeping up with the blog recently, you may have seen my review for British directing master Danny Boyle’s latest film, Trance. You may have also noticed that I was not a fan of Trance whatsoever. In fact, let’s take a look at some of the key quotes used in the review:
“…it is a film that wants to be clever, stylish, and evocative, but mostly fails”
“Trance becomes more and more farfetched, with some silly twists and ideas”
“At times, it almost feels like Boyle is making a film to please himself, with gratuitous nastiness and sex”
“This just feels a bit cheap and childish, and doesn’t contain the right subtlety or depth”
“Trance is a nice looking film that fails to engage in characters or content, and piles on twist after twist until it becomes disappointing shambles”
As you can see, I was not very forgiving on Trance. Maybe if it had come from a first time director, I could have been more forgiving, as I would at least see potential. However, from someone as consistent and intelligent as Danny Boyle, I expected far better.
If you look back at his filmography, you see just what a fantastic director he is, and still can be. His debut feature, 1994’s Shallow Grave, was the start of a new wave of British cinema, where stuffy period drama and bleak social realism gave way to exciting, fast paced indie films, and 1996’s sophomore hit Trainspotting (which I wrote about here: https://fordonfilm.wordpress.com/2013/03/14/why-trainspotting-is-the-greatest-film-of-all-time/) really did change everything about British films, showing that he was no fluke, and already a great talent.
He also introduced the astonishing talents of Ewan McGregor to the world, giving him some terrific anti-hero roles that McGregor really did knock out of the park. However, he proved he wasn’t perfect with third film A Life Less Ordinary, an odd musical-crime drama that got lots of negative press and is generally considered his most pointless film (although I reckon Trance will be up there soon). Despite his promising early start, he made it two poorly received films in a row with 2000’s The Beach, which, with a lowly 19% on Rotten Tomatoes, stands as his worst reviewed film. Personally, I quite like The Beach, for all its character flaws and that dire video game sequence; it features a great leading performance from Leonardo Di Caprio, and the scenery is fantastic.
Luckily, he regained a large crowd with 2002’s zombie horror, 28 Days Later. Funnily enough, this received some of the best reviews of his career, and yet I never liked 28 Days Later as much as everyone else. Still, it did start a professional relationship with Cillian Murphy, who would crop up in another Boyle film later on. In 2004, he released children’s film Millions, which many consider the under-seen film in his eclectic canon. A quirky little film about a young boy who finds millions of pounds stolen in a bank robbery, Millions isn’t classic Boyle, but it is a nice little film featuring solid performances from child actors.
Reteaming with earlier star Cillian Murphy, Boyle’s next film was the incredibly underrated 2007 sci-fi Sunshine, a film that just about completely flopped on release, but now is recognised as one of his forgotten masterpieces. Though Sunshine made very little money, and not a great deal of feedback, it did lead Boyle into his next film, and biggest achievement: Slumdog Millionaire.
In 2008, Danny Boyle released his film about an Indian man competing on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, who, when he begins to get a streak of right answers, is tortured and questioned about his knowledge. How could a poor, orphaned Indian boy, they wonder, know so much about the world? Throughout the course of the film, Jamal, played humbly by Dev Patel, recounts the story of his life, and the adventures which give him his incredible knowledge. Slumdog Millionaire’s synopsis doesn’t exactly sound like an Oscar winner, does it? And yet, come the night of the 81st Academy Awards, there was Slumdog Millionaire, winning a fantastic eight awards out of ten nominations. Though the biggest gong it took home was that of Best Picture, the award that meant the most to his diehard fans was the Best Director win for Danny Boyle, an award sorely deserved. Though Slumdog Millionaire is not necessarily his best film, it is by far his most successful, critically and commercially.
Most directors, following a triumph like this, would come back with a smaller, quieter film, perhaps to lose some of the expectations and get back to his roots. Luckily for audiences everywhere, Boyle is far too audacious for that, and he came back with 2011’s transcendent gem, 127 Hours. Following the real life story of Aron Ralston, a climber who got his arm trapped under a rock for the titular length, 127 Hours gives us two terrific achievements; a stunning leading performance from James Franco, who up to this point had never really been given a platform to perform like this, and some of the greatest direction for a film primarily set in one place ever seen. When it was first released, people questioned how a film about a man trapped under a rock could be exciting and dynamic, but Boyle proved once again that he can make just about any film exciting.
So, after 127 Hours comes Trance, released just a few weeks ago. Looking back over the entire catalogues of Danny Boyle’s films, it’s easy to see why Trance is a disappointment. Simply put, Boyle has made some of the finest British films of all time (looking at Empire’s list of the 100 Greatest British films, Slumdog Millionaire comes in at no. 58, 28 Days Later appears at no. 37, Shallow Grave is at no. 26 and Trainspotting comes in at no. 8), and Trance is nowhere near good enough. It doesn’t have the cool, fast talking script, icy anti-heroes or furiously fast pace. In truth, it’s just not good enough.
However, I think there is some merit to Trance, and I believe under the right circumstances (impossible now), Trance could have been a very solid addition to the back catalogue. You see, in 1994, just after making Shallow Grave, Boyle received the script for Trance, from screenwriter Joe Ahearne, who wanted some encouragement. However, Boyle told him it was too ambitious for the first time screenwriter, and so it wasn’t until 2001 that Trance was made, as a TV movie. Imagine if you will, that Boyle had held onto the script, and, instead of making the limp A Life Less Ordinary, had instead followed up Trainspotting with Trance. A younger, more ‘punk rock’ Boyle could have had a minor classic on his hands.
For one, the leading role of Simon, played far too nicely by James McAvoy, is an absolute perfect fit for the on-a-roll Ewan McGregor. After the conniving Alex in Shallow Grave, and the absolutely spot on Mark Renton in Trainspotting (still his best role), Simon would come next beautifully as another of Boyle’s anti-heroes. The smug grin and knowing winks to camera, the complete sense of desperation as a loser in way over his head, the ability to appear as both completely likeable and a complete bastard; it is the perfect amalgamation of Alex and Renton, and could have been sublime.
Instead of having the inexplicably American Elizabeth, as played solidly by Rosario Dawson, he could have continued his work with the fantastic Kelly Macdonald (who made her debut in Trainspotting). Rosario Dawson is a good dramatic actress, but she isn’t quite likeable or gritty enough to go through her character arc, whereas Macdonald has proven that she can be both loveable and fiery when she wants to be.
As for the villain? The role of Franck is probably the toughest to cast, as there are many ways to go with the character. I felt that Vincent Cassel was miscast for the role, as they tried to make Franck quite flamboyant, but he just came across as forced and certainly not intimidating enough for a master criminal. If it were made in the nineties, I think there’d be different ways to handle it. For one, Franck could be a vicious, ruthless criminal (which would fit in some of the earlier scenes), in which case I would suggest modern Scottish legend of the screen, Peter Mullan, already cast as a villain in Shallow Grave. Alternately, if Boyle wanted the civilised, classy villain, Christopher Eccleston, so creepy in the lead in Shallow Grave, could be very effective. He would, after all, be cast in a very similar role as a soldier in 28 Days Later.
The direction, also, would be more interesting, as Boyle was so thrilling and energetic in the early days, that for all its flaws, Trance could at least be more exciting than it is in 2013. Plus, Boyle would have more of an excuse for some of its more juvenile moments.
While I am not at all a fan of Trance, I will not deny its strong potential. Its plot could have been a thrilling, its characters interesting, and its direction another winner for Danny Boyle. Sadly, it will be categorised in history as a disappointment. Perhaps, had it been made in 1997, after the classic Trainspotting, and instead of the messy A Life Less Ordinary, it could have just been a great film. Maybe then, the disappointments financially and critically of The Beach could have been forgiven, and Trance could have been a far better film than it ultimately is.
By Harry Ford