Young Adam (18)
Seemingly from nowhere Young Adam emerged to lead the vanguard of a new, edgy independent British cinema. Premiered at Cannes it burst forth on a tidal wave of hype led by Ewan McGregor, its star, who claimed British Cinema had never seen anything like it.
Such a bold statement is bound to contain some factual errors, and McGregor’s does. He is correct, however, in suggesting that Young Adam – a story punctuated by bouts of athletic, sweaty, grunting scenes of coitus, or scenes of coitus punctuated by segments of story depending on one’s point of view – will shake up more than just a few jaded filmgoers.
Based on the novel of the same name by Alexander Trocchi, it boasts McGregor on a barge alongside Tilda Swinton and Peter Mullan, while Emily Mortimer drifts in and out in flashback as a former lover.
The movie floats along on a drifting raft of sex. Joe Taylor (McGregor) is a rootless twentysomething looking for meaning in the Scotland of the 1950s. He lands a job as helper to a bargee, Les (Mullan) who, with his sullen, bored, frustrated wife, chugs up and down the canals making deliveries.
All three live uncomfortably close to each other in Les’s barge and, before long, Joe witnesses the unsatisfactory climax (there isn’t one) to their lovemaking. It is a catalyst for the heartless, predatory Joe, who makes a move on dowdy Ella (Swinton). She, driven as much by guilt and shame as desire, consents to a few minutes of nocturnal rutting while Les is at the pub. And so a cold, destructive affair begins.
But strange things are afoot. Earlier Joe and Les hauled the corpse of a young woman from the Clyde. The discovery makes the papers – a situation that begins to obsess Les. Joe, on the other hand, reserves his energies for reading and rogering his employer’s wife.
Then there is Cathie, Joe’s ex-girlfriend and the one shining beacon of normality in his sad, barren life. But it appears that normality is not what Joe wants or needs, and so existence comes down only to acts of daily betrayal, lies and hurried, emotionless sex with a woman who is as much victim as convenient sex object.
There are those who are already calling Young Adam one of the great modern British dramas. Boasting some traditional elements – an ambiguous, itinerant anti-hero, a cuckold, a mother/lover and a mysterious corpse – it harks back to the ‘kitchen sink’ genre of the 1960s but, by virtue of being made in 2003, pushes the envelope.
Dialogue is spartan and used as a link to moments of passion – sexual, emotional and physical. Sex is used frequently and forcefully. As Joe and Ella’s affair deepens so their trysts become increasingly daring. Joe takes, Ella gives. Then there is the moment that has seen the film dubbed ‘Last Tango in Glasgow’, when Joe forcibly takes Cathie with the aid of custard, sauce and ketchup. Sounds kinky? Certainly. It’s also grim, grim, grim.
For McGregor Young Adam could well feature his most electrifying performance to date while Swinton, sporting hairy armpits and bereft of make-up, is braver than most 42-year-olds: in fact, she is utterly fearless.
Director David Mackenzie, the man behind the May release The Last Great Wilderness and currently shooting Asylum in Leeds, has again crafted a tale of loneliness and mercenary intrigue that culminates in a moment of courtroom drama reminiscent of Timothy Evans’ fate in 10 Rillington Place.
Throughout it all the grey Everyman of Joe Taylor watches and waits, never revealing a chink in his armour, patiently observing proceedings like a human vulture.
Love it or loathe it, Young Adam cannot be ignored. It will be one of the most talked about films of the year.
Star rating: ***