out of Five
Running time: 97
Impressively directed and beautifully shot, this is a dark, atmospheric, existential drama with terrific performances from both Ewan McGregor and Emily Mortimer.
Young Adam, which was the opening film at this year’s Edinburgh Film Festival, is based on the existential novel of the same name, by cult Scottish ‘beat’ novelist Alexander Trocchi. It’s a piece of work that is just as disturbing as Trocchi’s own life - he was a heroin addict who occasionally used to pimp out his own wife so as to feed his habit.
He also rewrote Young Adam as a pornographic novel, before dying of pneumonia in 1984. The film is an extremely faithful adaptation of the novel, dropping the voiceover but keeping the complex flashback structure, and the result is one of the best British films of the year.
Scotland, The Fifties, A Barge…
The film is set in Scotland in the 1950s. Ewan McGregor plays A Guy Named Joe, a drifter who's found work on a barge run by husband and wife Les (Peter Mullan) and Ella (Tilda Swinton). Though he likes Les, Joe just can't keep Wee McGregor in his pants and begins an affair with Ella. Meanwhile, flashbacks slowly reveal Joe’s connection to a young woman’s corpse that Joe and Les pull out of the canal in the opening scene…
In fact, there’s a phenomenal amount of shagging in the movie, including some truly bizarre sex scenes. One involves McGregor and Emily Mortimer (who plays Cathie) stripping off and having sex on the damp, oily gravel underneath a truck and there’s another one later on where he covers her in custard, tomato sauce, vinegar and custard powder before taking her (ambiguously) from behind.
This, however, is no saucy Tall Guy-style romp – the sex scenes are essential to the plot, with the amoral Joe seemingly driven only by sex, yet unable to find satisfaction: tellingly, Joe’s encounters with Cathie contain a raw, sensual power that’s lacking from his other liaisons.
The acting is superb with Mortimer quickly developing a reputation for
strong, fearless performances after this and her role in Lovely and Amazing. Swinton is equally impressive and there’s good support from Mullan. McGregor, however, is terrific and gives what is perhaps his best performance since Trainspotting - there's very little dialogue, but it isn't needed, the actors convey everything with looks and body language.
The film is directed by David Mckenzie, who made The Last Great Wilderness, only this time he's had money thrown at him. Aside from getting great performances from his actors, he also creates a suitably damp, dark atmosphere while recreating 1950s Scotland. He’s aided by some sterling photography by Giles Nuttgens – indeed, some of the shots of the boat on the canal are so beautiful they’re like paintings.
To sum up, this is an extremely impressive, very dark, amoral film, in which you're very much left to make up your own mind about Joe's actions. The atmosphere is pervasive and the film is likely to stay with you long, long after you leave the cinema. Highly recommended.