Photo by Neil Davidson
The dankly compelling Young Adam is adapted from the slim 1954 cult novel by the Scottish Beat writer Alexander Trocchi, a minor but pungent talent whose gutbucket existentialism is in the tradition of Roberto Arlts 7 Madmen, George Simenons Dirty Snow and any Jim Thompson book you might care to name. Set in the early 50s, it begins with a womans corpse floating in the river. The body is discovered by Joe (Ewan McGregor), a young drifter whos working for Les (Peter Mullan) and Ella Gault (Tilda Swinton) on a barge carrying coal from Glasgow to Edinburgh. In his own way, Joe is something of a ladykiller: a selfish, would-be bohemian who gloms onto women for sex and material support but flees if they expect anything of him. Soon, he and acrid-tongued Ella are rutting like mad seals in the barges cramped quarters while the impotent Les tosses darts at the pub. Meanwhile, Joes mind is filled with thoughts of the pliant, young Cathie (Emily Mortimer), the girl he left behind.
Young Adam was written and directed by David Mackenzie, a previously unheralded Scottish director who has taken on the tricky task of transforming a thinly plotted first-person novel into a piece of visual storytelling. Drenching his world in lovely-bleak blues, grays and browns the film is finely shot by The Deep Ends Gilles Nuttgens Mackenzie evokes a dingy, postWorld War II Scotland of dinky flats, slag heaps and pinched lives. Everyone desperately seeks to flee into something: alcohol, suburban bliss, a journey to China, another persons arms. Orgasm is the closest these characters get to transcendence, and what binds Joe to Ella, as to Cathie before him, is the desperate slap of flesh on flesh atop damp grass or beneath oily truck beds. (British cinema
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hasnt lost its knack for sordid sex scenes.) Escape remains a mirage that beckons alluringly in the distance, like the fun-fair whirligig that Joe sees from the barge; when he finally gets there, it starts raining.
The movie is another showcase for the underappreciated McGregor, who disappears into his character so discreetly that, even as his face lets us track Joes every thought, you never feel youre watching a Performance. Hes not a self-serious Method man like Sean Penn, whose work seems designed to make us think, What a powerful piece of acting! Nor does he vaunt his own courage at playing an unlikable cad such as Joe, a floundering avant-garde writer who lives off Cathies earnings and repays her with abuse, most notably in a sequence involving custard, ketchup and sodomy Last Tango in Glasgow. McGregors lack of vanity finds its perfect complement in Swinton. Revived by the attentions of the unreliable Joe, Ella shakes off the slump-shouldered acrimony of an unhappy wife and becomes almost coltish.
The source novel is a piece of lightweight Camus (it has affinities with both The Stranger and The Fall), but one senses that Trocchi thinks of it as a big statement about guilt, responsibility and the hell of other people. In fact, his vision is too reductive for that. For all the symbolic weight of its title, Young Adam doesnt come close to giving us Existence. But it does give us one limited human being. And so does Mackenzies film, which, in its grimy claustrophobia and casual amorality, is a portrait of the artist as a selfish young bastard, a man who thinks the world around him is soiled, and finds it just terrible, but wants to believe that, in the final analysis, it has nothing to do with him.
YOUNG ADAM | Written and directed by DAVID MACKENZIE, based on the novel by ALEXANDER TROCCHI | Produced by JEREMY THOMAS | Released by Sony Pictures Classics | At selected theaters