Young Adam
directed by David Mackenzie
(Sony, 2003)

At some point in Young Adam, the tension becomes unbearable. Maybe it's when Joe Taylor sets off on an affair with the boss's wife, the two of them reaching for each other within the confines of the tiny coal-hauling river barge the boss, his wife and Joe share. Maybe it's when we realize Joe may know a bit -- quite a bit -- more than he's admitting about the dead woman he and the boss dragged in from the water.

It's uneven, and it's pretty graphic (readers who will be affronted by full frontal nudity should probably take a pass on this one), but the sex scenes have nothing on the mental slide Joe takes from well-meaning, aspiring writer into amorality. That's where the disturbing elements of Young Adam come into play.

Joe (Ewan McGregor) is walking along the waterfront one day when he's signed on to work the river barge of Ella Gault (Tilda Swinton, Adaptation) and her husband, Les (Peter Mullan). The Gaults share a loveless marriage, and it's not long before Joe rolls his way into Ella's bed whenever her husband leaves the canal and goes to town.

Joe's an outsider among outsiders -- the Gaults plying their trade on the outlying canals that link Glasgow and Edinburgh - and he exploits that anonymity with a predatory sexuality.

One bleak Scottish day, Joe and Les use a pole to fish in a young woman who's drowned. And though Joe never lets on, not even with a doubletake, we learn that he's no stranger to this woman, clad only in her slip and face down in the frigid waters. She's his former girlfriend, Cathie, and Joe's the last person to have seen her alive. But did he kill her? Did she commit suicide? And what about Cathie's current lover, a married plumber whom the police haul in and put on trial?

For all of this film's noirish aspects, it's just as much about the emotional torture we inflict on each other, about the disconnect that can be found when people find their normally placid selves doing evil.

Much of the film's success goes to Swinton, all flinty unsentimentality, and Mullan, whose supressed performance has not one false note. Their instincts mesh with McGregor's, who's become a more subtle and gifted actor since his similarly rough role in 1996's Trainspotting.

Young Adam is based on a 1954 novel by Scottish avant-garde writer Alex Trocchi, whose erotic fiction got him banned in America, Britain and France.

- Rambles
written by Jen Kopf
published 8 January 2005

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