Reviewed: Trance and The Spirit of ‘45

Brits, glitz and grit.

Trance (15); The Spirit of ‘45 (U)
dir: Danny Boyle; dir: Ken Loach

Film-makers, unlike actors, rarely achieve the mummifying status of national treasure, and those that do (Richard Attenborough, say) are not usually at the vanguard of their art. Two directors who might be in contention for this dubious honour have new work out this month. One is Ken Loach, who is far too prickly to be realistically a national treasure: if the nation were to clutch him to its bosom, it might leave a nasty rash.

The other, Danny Boyle, is a simpler case, though for an unusual reason. It is not his work for cinema that has transcended cultural and generational boundaries but his direction of the London Olympics opening ceremony last year.

This ambitious project was also a crazily eccentric one; scale and spectacle were shot through with dottiness, as though Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks were being choreographed by Busby Berkeley in a staging visible from space. (Come to think of it, that must be one of the few batty ideas that didn’t make the grade.) The production won Boyle a degree of admiration that cannot be measured in best director Oscars or credibility (though he has both). It was, to this viewer at least, the finest Danny Boyle film never made.

Now, it’s back to the grindstone. Boyle’s new thriller, Trance, was shot months before the games and then edited just as the Olympic Park was being disassembled and the roof-mounted missiles returned to the cupboard under the stairs.

The film has London at its heart but here the city is a superficially sleek, flashy model of western sophistication beneath which lies a reservoir of violence and hurt. It is, in that sense, not unlike the film’s characters: Franck (Vincent Cassel), a gangster who masterminds a heist to swipe a priceless Goya; Simon (James McAvoy), the auctioneer and inside man who colludes with him, only to lose the spoils shortly before suffering a head injury; and Elizabeth (Rosario Dawson), a hypnotherapist to whom Simon turns to retrieve his memory of the painting’s whereabouts.

Each of them has secrets that are revealed as the convoluted plot unspools. If we have been totting up the clues correctly, everything will look markedly different at the end of the film, when our assumptions about Franck, Simon and Elizabeth have been thrown into disarray. In a worst-case scenario, it may take longer than usual upon leaving the cinema for you to remember where you parked your car.

If I have been circumspect about giving too much away, it’s partly because I was handed a letter from “Danny” at the screening, requesting that I would not reveal any of the plot’s surprises.

Whether I was the only one to receive such an instruction, and that he had simply heard what an incorrigible blabbermouth I can be – OK, so I once described Citizen Kane as “the sledge movie” – I cannot say. The problem with Trance, though, is particularly acute, since there is nothing to it apart from its mysteries. That’s not true of its influences, which have a thriving life beyond their “spoilers” – Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ, Christopher Nolan’s Memento. Or, for that matter, the sledge movie.

The film is at its strongest visually. Anthony Dod Mantle’s cinematography and Mark Tildesley’s production design reinvent London as a half-deserted playground of brick, steel and neon, finding in its clustered streets and rooftops an unnerving desolation. (A walk in the park for these collaborators, perhaps, after the startling scenes of a depopulated capital in 28 Days Later . . .) And while there are references to Goya being “the first great painter of the human mind”, Boyle makes a good case for himself as a director skilled at conveying mental states.

Trance is as mischievous as a dream and just as ephemerally entertaining in a moment- by-moment sense. The eye is always being tickled, the funny bone nudged. Vincent Cassel is shown wielding a fire extinguisher, which is enough to induce nausea in anyone who recalls the head-bashing scene in the actor’s earlier film Irréversible; while a bottle of tomato sauce stands prominently in the foreground during a gruesome episode in which a man continues to natter after his face has been demolished by a shotgun blast. It’s as if Boyle is reminding us that the gore is only ketchup, and what we’re watching is just a movie.

Ultimately, that’s all Trance is. It has to be a problem that such a hefty chunk of the action takes place inside Simon’s head during hypnosis – in other words, not really happening at all. Then again, there is a tradition of romps confined largely to the brain, Inception being only the most successful. In the end, it’s the unnecessary tricksiness of the film that halts its flow. A crucial human component is missing. The film may be dreamlike but that’s just another way of saying it doesn’t add up to much once the lights come on.

Clement Attlee talks to workers in his Limehouse constituency in 1945. Photograph: Getty Images

Along with Roeg, Loach was another influential director whose work featured in a montage during Boyle’s opening ceremony. He is back now with a documentary, The Spirit of ’45, a rallying cry to Britain today from those who remember the battles fought to rebuild the country in the years immediately after the war. Aside from its final moments, the film has been made entirely in black-and-white, the better to provide a continuity of experience with the archive material, rather than a then-and-now approach. The entire point is that those battles for equality need fighting again now. Principles central to British welfare and identity require defending all over again.

Loach scatters talking heads (a GP, a train driver, Tony Benn) among the footage brought together by the great archivist Jim Anderson. The assemblage by Loach and his editor, Jonathan Morris, ranges between the dust-dry and the fiercely sentimental. Loach’s 1983 documentary, The Red and the Blue, about the Labour and Conservative conferences, showed how acidic he can be but the mood of The Spirit of 45 is mostly of the tub-thumping variety. The editing bursts brilliantly at the seams on just one occasion.

Reflecting on the hiding he received at the hands of a policeman, a former miner wonders rhetorically, “Who is it who gives them the power to beat me, a working man, with a stick?” The cut to Margaret Thatcher at a Conservative conference, waving a yoohooing hand as if accepting responsibility shamelessly, is an unbeatable instance of the editor’s scissors being used to snipe as well as to snip.

The film provides a chronology of hope, from the pre-war years when doctors doubled as debt collectors, to the formation of the NHS and the nationalisation of transport and mining.

A sudden leap forward to Thatcher leaves a 1970s-sized black hole but it all ends in a burst of righteous anger and an invitation for us to continue the fight. Still, I have a low tolerance for cartoon touches such as the use of fox-hunting footage to represent the upper class, while the poor are all cloth caps, stout and gappy smiles. Loach is better than that; he’s no Michael Moore.

That The Spirit of ’45 survives its simplifications is due to the sincerity and urgency of Loach’s argument. And, regrettably, to its pertinence.

James McAvoy in "Trance".

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 25 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, After God

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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era