Laura Clifford Robin Clifford
In 1957, a young drifter, Joe (Ewan McGregor, "Big Fish") is hired by Les Gault (Peter Mullan, "The Magdalene Sisters") to work on the barge he operates between Glasgow and Edinburgh. When the two find the body of a woman floating in the water, Joe doesn't let on that he knows the victim. Tension builds in the confined space as a mystery rooted in morality builds around Joe, in writer/director David Mackenzie's adaptation of the Alexander Trocchi novel, "Young Adam."
Although this film is beautifully crafted and well acted (particularly by the fearless Swinton), "Young Adam" features such morally bankrupt characters that it's difficult to care about any of them. Only Emily Mortimer ("Lovely & Amazing") as Cathie Dimly, whose floating body is the first thing we see, is a sympathetic character. Call this one a Scottish "Alfie" with a less charming protagonist.
We know Joe is lying by omission after he and Les haul a woman's body out of the Clyde. He sends Les off, then surreptitiously lays a caressing hand on the woman's back, pulling down her slip to cover her naked buttocks. Only twice more does Joe exhibit the merest hint of caring for another human being.
Joe finds excuses to leave Les in Glasgow bars so he can stay on the barge and shag his wife (Les is usually impotent from the evening's drink). Les, thrilled to be a minor player in a big local news event, avidly follows the case of the drowned woman, especially when it turns into a murder case. Joe and Cathie's past is shown in flashback, from its sexual beginning to its very unpleasant dual climax. Cathie's most recent, married boyfriend is charged with her murder. Back on the barge, Les discovers Joe and Ella's affair and leaves. Ella, who owns the boat, assumes Joe will marry her, but he shows his true colors by casually having her slatternly sister Gwen. Joe leaves the barge and falls into the home of another married couple with a willing wife. He is briefly reunited with the Gaults (although only Ella sees him) when he attends the murder trial on the day Les testifies. Joe knows the accused is innocent and squirms from the guilt of it all.
There is no Adam in "Young Adam," and, if the reference is biblical, it is a perplexing one. The women of 1957 Glasgow may all be portrayed as unusually promiscuous, but no apples are proffered to Joe, an aggressive seducer. Ewan McGregor, whose propensity for full frontal nudity has earned this film an NC-17 rating, is good as the good-looking heel, but there is little depth to the morose young man who drifts from one shoddy affair to the next taking no responsibility for his actions. Swinton, on the other hand, is terrific conveying an unimaginative lower class laborer. Her grimy, clammy appearance conveys an utter lack of vanity, yet despite this, Swinton still steams up the screen (one of the film's most disturbing visuals is a closeup of a fly sitting next to her nipple).
Peter Mullan is fine as a simple man looking for simple pleasures and Emily Mortimer conveys a bruised vulnerability as the lovely, abused Cathie. Therese Bradley is a standout as Ella's floozy of a sister (kudos to hair by Meg Speirs who makes Gwen a redhead with black roots).
Besides Swinton's down and dirty performance, "Young Adam's" best component is Giles Nuttgens's ("Swimfan") rich cinematography, which gives Scotland's cities the dark look of old Victorian architecture and its countryside the appearance of a land drenched in water (this despite the film's lack of rainy days). He gives the barge's cramped below decks a spacial identity (production design by Laurence Dorman). Nuttgens's stunning visuals include a shot of Joe walking towards the back of the barge as it moves forward with Joe static in center frame and a beautiful, symbolically black silhouette of Joe steering the barge beneath a stone bridge. Original music by David Byrne is too arty for this dark period piece, with distracting jazz riffs overly amplified in the sound mix.
"Young Adam" is worthwhile for its artistry, but a bit of a drudge to sit through. In the end, we're not even given the satisfaction of Joe burdened with guilt. His last acts is to throw away a gift from Cathie - a mirror etched with 'Think of me when you look at yourself.'
Robin did not see this film.
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