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Review: 'Trance' a sometimes-mesmerizing heist picture

| Thursday, April 11, 2013, 8:55 p.m.

The heist picture gets a few Danny Boyle head-game twists with “Trance,” a movie about memory, the mind and manipulating both to find some “lost” stolen art.

James McAvoy is Simon, trusted employee of a London auction house. On the day they put Goya's “Witches in the Air” under the gavel, thieves attack. But Simon is on the case — following company protocol to safeguard the priceless ($25 to $50 million) painting.

Only he didn't. And when he took a conk to the head as the robbery went down, he lost his memory of where he stashed it.

That has the gang led by Franck (Vincent Cassel) in a tizzy. They're tearing up his apartment, tracking him down. And when enhanced-interrogation methods don't help, they turn to a hypno-therapist.

“Whatever's in his head, she can find it,” they say. “She” is Elizabeth, who usually helps people forget to smoke or remember where they put their car keys. Here, without knowing Simon's real purpose, she sets to work — quietly, mesmerizingly putting him in a trance.

The toughest secrets we keep, she purrs, are those “we're keeping from ourselves.”

“Trance” has a pulsing energy to it during the heist and its aftermath, switching to something more serene and meditative as Elizabeth (Rosario Dawson) tries to unlock Simon's secrets and figure out what those secrets really are.

Boyle, working from a script by “Doctor Who” vet Joe Ahearne and regular collaborator John Hodge (“Trainspotting,” “The Beach”), teases out the mystery and stages vivid flashbacks which we have to reason out because some are clues, some aren't — such as how Simon came to be involved in the caper, connections between the various characters, and the shifting motives and allegiances of one and all.

Cassel, a villain's villain in the French films about the bank robber Mesrine, turns up the menace and the charm, making Franck a not-unreasonable guy who can be the very height of unreasonable when he's crossed.

McAvoy is not at his best here. I had a hard time believing anything he did or said, mainly because of his blasé reactions to the finger-nail pulling torture the character endures early on. Seriously, that smarts, and you get little sense of that from him.

But Dawson (“Sin City,” “Unstoppable”) gets her best role in years as Elizabeth, despite having the water-carrying job of explaining hypnosis, the mind and her methods to the mobsters (and the audience). She adds a sex appeal and mystery to this plainly damaged woman caught up in a dangerous game.

For all its plot trickery, mind science and relationship square-dancing, “Trance” doesn't have the emotional tug or technical pizazz of Boyle's best films — “Slumdog Millionaire,” “Trainspotting” or “127 Hours.” It feels more like a technical stunt, but one he pulls off with his usual panaché, if not his usual heart.

Roger Moore is a movie critic for McClatchy-Tribune News Service.

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