Jonathan Romney on Trance: Danny Boyle loses himself in a hall of mirrors

Who doesn't love Boyle the Olympic hero? What a pity it's harder to like Boyle the director

It's probably a treasonable offence today to criticise Danny Boyle. He gladdened the hearts of nations with an Olympics opening extravaganza of flamboyance and chutzpah that also flew a flag for our endangered health service. And he's said to be a very nice man. You could barely have a more admired public figure if you rolled PT Barnum, Ken Livingstone and Michael Palin into one.

But let me churlishly confess – I haven't much liked any Danny Boyle film since Trainspotting, except perhaps his eccentric science-fiction venture Sunshine. It's his very stylistic exuberance that's the problem. Boyle is a razzle-dazzle entertainer who won't risk the viewer being bored for a moment. He has a way of telling you, at the start of every film: settle down, get comfy in your seat because very soon, you'll be on the edge of it. In other words: look out, I'm putting on a show.

This message is explicit at the start of the hyper-devious thriller Trance. The film begins with James McAvoy's hero-narrator Simon explaining how the security system operates in the auction house where he works; I don't think I've seen an opening that tells you quite so overtly to pay attention, because you might miss an important detail.

There's something so knowing in Simon's direct address to us – Boyle keeps cutting back from the action to McAvoy's sly smirks – that your defences, and hackles, will instantly rise if you're at all averse to being winked at.

Spoiler alerts are neither here nor there, since the plot keeps switchbacking on us every other minute. The story begins with Simon foiling the theft of a priceless Goya by a gang led by suave criminal Franck (Vincent Cassel). Only – Twist No 1 – Simon is really in league with Franck, and is due to deliver the painting to him. But – Twist No 2 – Simon has incurred a head injury and has forgotten where he put the spoils.

Once Simon has had his head tended in hospital – Trance's one discreet plug for the NHS – he finds himself having his fingernails seen to by Franck and associates, who want to torture the booty's whereabouts out of him.

Since this doesn't unlock his memory, the gang presents him with a choice of psychotherapists to consult, and Simon happens to choose the sexiest one available – Harley Street specialist Elizabeth Lamb (Rosario Dawson).

It turns out she's a wolf in Lamb's clothing: realising what's at stake in Simon's amnesia, she tells Franck she wants her cut of the money, if she locates the painting. She's prepared to do anything, she says, in Dawson's extraordinary deep silky tones, which are Trance's most dazzling special effect. "You'll fuck him to get him to remember?" says Franck, in the film's most tongue-in-cheek exchange. "I agree," replies Elizabeth. "It's not conventional practice."

In fact, there's no remotely conventional practice to be found in the script by Joe Ahearne and long-standing Boyle collaborator John Hodge. Trance will do whatever it takes to keep us permanently wrong-footed. Like Christopher Nolan's Inception, it's forever staging scenes that take place inside characters' minds, as if they were real-world events. But Trance also cheats by giving us shock turns of event, including sudden brutal killings, then pulling back, telling us that they never really happened – that the film is just fooling with us.

Simon is about as unreliable as a narrator can get, and his entire being serves to remind us that we're in the realm of storytelling. Nothing wrong with that – François Ozon runs a literary riff on the premise in this week's In the House, while Steven Soderbergh does it very nicely in Side Effects. But where Soderbergh challenges us to keep our wits peeled and question our moral assumptions about his characters and the world they move in, Trance is pure hall-of-mirrors stuff. Nothing in Boyle's film is what it appears – so nothing matters. There's no stable ground here – no consistent narrative or emotional rules. We can't care about Simon if there's nothing at stake.

One moment, the gang are terrorising him with a radical manicure, the next he's cracking jokes with them like best buddies. Trance treats its characters as no more than game pieces. The most cavalier treatment is given to a mystery woman who at first seems a marginal bit player, then proves to have a key role; yet what happens to her is so nasty and so implausible that the revelatory shock just isn't earned.

While the plot seems intricately contrived, the effect is of a series of for-the-hell-of-it whammies – the most shameless show-stopping effect being a novelty nude scene highlighting the, let's say, very modern state of Dawson's mons pubis.

What the film lacks in narrative cogency, it makes up for in colour, thanks to star cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle: a royal blue Chinese restaurant, a purple-lit corridor, aerial shots of a fluorescent orange motorway system. There's also much sleek use of iPads as a visual metaphor for the mind and its (mal)functions. The electric palette, the conjurer's-flourish editing, Rick Smith's thunderous score – it all makes for a dazzling package, but a numbing one.

Boyle's directing often strikes me as the cinematic equivalent of 1980s pop production – you'd have liked the songs a lot better without all the reverbed drums, treated guitars and synthesisers stacked to the rafters.There's cinematic mastery here, no doubt, but of a decidedly empty sort.The result isn't so much trance as de luxe torpor.

Critic's Choice

Matteo Garrone – director of Gomorrah – examines the fantasy of television fame, Italian style, in his troubling but exuberant modern fairy tale Reality. And Mexico's most left-field talent Carlos Reygadas mixes the light, the dark and the downright weird in the deeply enigmatic Post Tenebras Lux.