His Dark Materials

7 minute read
William Lee Adams / London

“Sometimes we’re quite rude,” says Danny Boyle, “because you get impatient when you’re busy.” In fact, Boyle is not rude, even though he is beyond busy. It’s October 2011, and the director has two weeks to finish Trance, a psychological thriller that won’t hit theaters for another 17 months. With his spectacles slipping down his nose and his hair disheveled, he scurries–the man doesn’t walk–through the labyrinth of stages and rehearsal rooms of London’s 3 Mills Studios, laughing frequently, pausing each time someone places a schedule or drawing in his ever gesticulating hands.

At the moment, Boyle deploys his frantic energy seven days a week: he films Trance from Saturday to Wednesday and spends the other two days planning the opening ceremony for the Olympics in London. He created a pop-cultural touchstone with his second feature, Trainspotting, back in 1996 and a global phenomenon with Slumdog Millionaire (2008), which won eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Soon his $42 million Olympic spectacle is going to raise his international profile even higher. For now, though, he’s happy to let Trance distract him from the 7,500 volunteers he needs to cast and the 12,956 props his team needs to make for the opening ceremony. “The idea was to give us a break from the Olympics because there’s so much planning involved,” he says. “It’s lovely to get out and do something else.”

Now Boyle is rushing to another set, which resembles a sleek doctor’s office on London’s famous Harley Street. Except for the trail of ratty carpet squares just outside the camera frame. And the fact that no one in this office is wearing shoes. The makeshift insulation and the no-shoes policy are meant to minimize background noise so that carefully positioned microphones pick up only Rosario Dawson’s voice. Dawson plays hypnotherapist Elizabeth Lamb, who in this scene attempts to lull her patient Simon, a fine-art dealer played by James McAvoy, into a trance. McAvoy will spend the afternoon slouched in an armchair and later admits that at times Dawson’s calm voice and gentle instructions to relax affected him as much as his character. “I fell asleep once,” he says, “just because she was so soothing.”

Few aspects of Trance, which hits theaters April 5, qualify as soothing. The mind-bending narrative opens with a snatch-and-grab raid of a London auction house and the theft of a multimillion-dollar Goya painting. Simon, the heist crew’s inside man, suffers a concussion in the melee and afterward claims not to remember where he stashed the loot. Lead gangster Franck (Vincent Cassel) tries and fails to use torture to jog Simon’s memory, then turns to Elizabeth for help. As the narrative twists and backflips, truth, hypnotic suggestion and psychosis blur together; a love triangle comes into focus, but it’s hard to find a hero–or a reliable narrator. “If you like pledging yourself to a particular character, then you may struggle with this film,” Boyle, 56, says. “You won’t be quite sure where to stake yourself.”

That ambiguity contrasts with his two previous films, which invite audiences to root for their dogged, daunted protagonists. In Boyle’s 127 Hours (2010), James Franco plays a real-life adventurer who saws off his arm to escape certain death in a Utah canyon, and Slumdog Millionaire follows a kid from the slums of Mumbai to fame and riches on television. Both films have a strong sense of place, while Trance is stubbornly placeless: its main characters have Scottish, American and French accents, and Boyle shot in the Docklands and Tilbury Docks–areas of London less than instantly recognizable to Britons and foreigners alike.

But a reach back into his filmography reveals the untethered, morally ambiguous Trance as a kind of return to his roots. In his debut, Shallow Grave (1994), three friends do unspeakable things to their roommate’s corpse as part of a scheme to keep a suitcase of his cash, and body horror abounds in Trainspotting’s anarchic tale of thieving Scottish junkies. Trance’s characters endure electroshock therapy, are divested of their fingernails and are buried alive. “You just feel victimized the whole time,” says McAvoy of shooting the more brutal scenes. “It was horrible.”

Weirdly enough, the gory intensity and mind-warp psychology of Trance may in some sense derive from Boyle’s two-year stint in the belly of the Olympics. When he agreed to the opening-ceremony gig in 2010, he negotiated a contract that included two sabbaticals: one to mount a stage production of Frankenstein in London and one to shoot Trance. Filming, he says, became an antidote to the sterility of corporate meetings and the sugarplum sweetness of children dancing on beds in pajamas. “The two projects are linked in the sense of yin and yang,” Boyle says. “While you’re doing a nationally responsible, family-orientated celebration, it’s wonderful to be able to go off and make a deliciously dark film at night.”

Much of the particular delicious darkness of Trance is rooted in his devotion to film noir: its long shadows and mirrors and hermetically sealed moral universes. (The film’s visual palette and looping structure owe a particular debt to a noir update from a decade ago, Christopher Nolan’s Memento.) “What I love about noir, and what we borrow from it, is that stories happen in a bubble,” Boyle says. “The actors have to sustain that bubble and make you believe it so it doesn’t pop.” True to noirish form, crime and sex mingle in Trance with potentially damning consequences, and Dawson’s character–who appears to use her sexuality to manipulate the men around her–conjures a contemporary femme fatale: a heady mix of strength, vulnerability and gorgeous unknowability. The character’s last name, Lamb, suggests a victim being circled by predators. But even a lamb can bite back. “She’s not going to be able to match the men muscle for muscle. That’s not possible,” Dawson says of Elizabeth. “She can hold her own because she’s intelligent and confident.”

And because she has that velvety, opioid voice. It’s captured with pin-drop precision by sound recordist Simon Hayes, winner of this year’s Academy Award for sound mixing for Les Misérables, which famously featured its actors (including fellow Oscar recipient Anne Hathaway) singing live on camera. For Trance, Hayes aimed for a heightened sense of reality so that the audience could experience Elizabeth’s words as if they were inside Simon’s mind and under her spell. “We wanted the voice way up front in the mix so the soundscape would be almost dreamlike,” Hayes says.

Or nightmare-like. Trance is rough stuff, made by a man who moviegoers might have forgotten has no qualms about ripping his ostensible heroes to shreds. For Boyle, who’s lately famous for the whimsical joy he brought to the London Olympics and whose most acclaimed movies have made the underdog top dog, it’s a welcome diversion.

“Over the past few years,” he says, “all the films are exactly the same in that they’re all about someone overcoming insurmountable odds, whether it’s the guy in Slumdog Millionaire or the guy in 127 Hours. The trick with Trance is that you don’t know which character has the insurmountable odds. You’re playing with the characters as they come in and out of focus. I love that.”

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