Young Adam


Reviewed by: Angus Wolfe Murray

Young Adam
"Emotion stains the walls of this period film like gutter waste."

Emotion stains the walls of this period film like gutter waste. It is as if Dostoevsky walked in the shadow of the Clyde canal, infecting the air with his existential view of a world grown tired of romance. The truth is dark and ugly, brooding and sensual. Only imagination plants seeds of hope on wasted ground to wither in the wind before any sun can save them.

The way that writer/director David Mackenzie has adapted Alexander Trocchi's novel makes it difficult to describe without puncturing the plot. It's like being dealt a hand of cards, before arranging them into suits. The cards are moments in time and there is no order yet.

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The use of flashback has always been a delicate business. There is the one-blink effect of instant memory, or the blurry fade into nostalgic soup, or the whooshy light show that precedes recollection. Mackenzie allows the past and present to flow together. The story emerges by chance, scene by scene. It is a technique that could easily lead to confusion, especially without the safety harness of a voice-over commentary, and yet it works beautifully, enhanced by exceptional performances and a taut, literate script.

Joe (Ewan McGregor) works on a coal barge, with Les (Peter Mullan), his wife Ella (Tilda Swinton) and their young son. Once he was a writer, but now he's a hired hand. There is a sense of loss about him.

The body of a girl is fished out of the water. The incident becomes news, followed by a murder enquiry. Les is proud to have been part of something that was reported in the papers. For Joe, it is different. The girl's name is Cathy (Emily Mortimer). Once, they were lovers. As the river runs through it, their story floats to the surface.

This is a film about the responsibility of action, how desire cuts at the roots of loyalty, how the weakness of a moment destroys the lives of the innocent, how retribution seldom finds what it's looking for. The evocation of the Fifties, when everyone had a fag in their mouth and women drank neat gin and sex was barely understood, except by men like Joe who took it where they could, violently. The atmosphere of repressed passion is as strong as the taste of blood on the lips of the wounded.

The colour is drained to the shade of a drowned baby's lips. David Byrne's music swamps the senses. Mackenzie shows courage and demonstrates a confidence that British films have been crying out for too long. This is genuine auteur cinema from Scotland, neither a pastiche, nor an attempt to be something else.

McGregor gives the strongest, most sensitive performance of his career. Swinton, as ever, is fearless and Mullan shows dignity in a role that is painful to watch at times, while Mortimer allows herself to be humiliated with a dedication that is brave beyond reach.

Reviewed on: 10 Jul 2003
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Rootless drifter working on Scottish canal barge discovers a dead woman in the water.
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Jennie Kermode ****1/2

Director: David Mackenzie

Writer: David Mackenzie, based on the book by Alexander Trocchi

Starring: Ewan McGregor, Tilda Swinton, Peter Mullan, Emily Mortimer, Jack McElhone, Therese Bradley, Ewan Stewart, Stuart McQuarrie, Pauline Turner, Alan Cooke

Year: 2003

Runtime: 98 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Country: UK


EIFF 2003

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