Directed by David MacKenzie. UK/France. 2003.
A murder inquiry opens after barge worker Joe Taylor (McGregor) pulls the body of a young woman out of the River Clyde with his boss, Les Gault (Peter Mullan). When the woman is identified as Cathie Dimlie (Emily Mortimer), and an arrest made, we learn that Joe isnít quite the innocent bystander he at first appears to be. Through a series of flashbacks interspersed with his developing affair with Lesís wife Ella (Tilda Swinton) we learn the true nature of Joeís link with the dead woman.
At the time of his death from pneumonia in 1984, Alexander Trocchi work had been largely forgotten. But thanks to a renewed interest in his work in the mid 1990ís by Scottish writers such as Irvine Welsh and Alan Warner, and magazines like Rebel Inc. he has undergone something of a renaissance, the culmination of which is director David Mackenzieís haunting realisation of Trocchiís debut novel.
In a recent interview McGregor acknowledged that given the British Film Industry seems to be stuck in a romantic comedy rut, Young Adam was a hard film to get funding for, "itís a miracle the film got made at all" he readily admits, but he praises Mackenzie for allowing him to play Joe "in such a brave, adult, sexy film". Indeed the audience has a lot to thank McGregor and co for; Young Adam is a stark reminder in a sea of big budget action flicks and CGI heavy sequels of the pure quality of gritty, realistic films that are being generated on British shores.
Patiently executed, Young Adam is a dark, brooding intelligent film that demands a lot from its audience. As Joe descends deeper and deeper into his own self-indulgent behaviour, the gap between audience and screen is tightened and narrowed till you are as uncomfortably close as possible. Digging deep below the surface of everyday life, Young Adam explores the twisted and subversive relationships Joe forms with the women he comes into contact with, and the implications of his actions and the decisions he makes.
Much has been made of the sexual content of this film, but while explicit in places and always highly charged it is anything but gratuitous. The four relationships that Joe has with women in this film tell us more about his character than pages of dialogue and exposition ever could, twisting and subverting notions of intimacy and acceptability along the way. Joe is a man with no conscience, he lacks morals and doesnít think twice about betraying those who trust him, he begins a reckless affair with his bosses wife Ella, then when Ellaís recently widowed sister comes to stay he thinks nothing of sleeping with her and then quickly moves on to his new landlords young wife. Joe things nothing of betraying those around, but the biggest and most damming is that which he commits against Cathie. He watches an innocent man go on trial and be sentenced to death for her murder when he knows the truth and isnít brave enough to speak up, denying her in death the respect he failed to show her in life.
Set on the canals linking Glasgow and Edinburgh during the 1950ís Young Adamís backdrop adds a great deal of clout to the atmosphere and tone of the whole film. The landscape has bluey overtones; camera shots linger awkwardly and are often ambiguous and obscure, forcing you to look at things in a different way to what you expect. Yet there is something very beautiful and serene about the melancholic woe that runs through this film. When Joe first meets Cathie on the beach they are cast in almost technicolor, similarly when she submits to Joeís affections, Ella is transformed, life seeps back into her veins as she experiences a sexual awakening and steps forward from the dreary backdrop of her life and begins to live.
Ewan McGregor is an incredibly charismatic actor, and in playing Joe he has succeeded in muting a great deal of the warmth that he naturally injects into the roles he plays. In Young Adam he strips this away even further and we see a much more raw and vulnerable side to McGregor. He commands the screen with a subtle but powerful force, and has created in Joe a multifaceted character that is both nihilistic and selfish, yet elicits a certain amount of undeserving empathy from the audience.
As the downtrodden put upon Ella, Tilda Swinton exerts a subtle but ethereal beauty as a woman who has become almost bound and gagged by the life choices she has made. She has accepted her lot in life and has no reason to aspire to more until Joe shows an interest in her, and on the sheer strength of the sexual exchange between them she begins to see a world outside the confines of the barge.
In a recent interview Swinton described Trocchiís outlook, saying he was "facing the great questions of mortality, existence. How it is possible to make connections with people, to own oneís own loneliness" Young Adam is ultimately a film about loneliness, when it comes down to it Joe is alone, sitting through the trial of the man accused of Cathieís murder he is the only one who knows the truth, and even when at the end he writes an anonymous letter explaining what happened, he is ignored and the suspect is found guilty.
Without giving away the ending, Young Adam finishes not a million miles away from where it began, Joe hasnít undergone some kind of spiritual awakening, and he hasnít metamorphosed into a better human being. But as he drops the mirror into the River Clyde in the films final scene, there is a glimmer of hope that he may have just found his conscience, and of course there is always China!
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