Young Adam (2003) directed by David Mackenzie is based on the novel of the same name by Alexander Trocci, one of the lesser known authors connected with the Beat Generation. The story revolves around Joe (Ewan McGregor) who we are introduced as he works as a deckhand on a barge along with Les (Peter Mullen) and his wife Ella (Tilda Swinton). Les and Joe find the body of a young woman in the river and fish her out, which gains them the kind of quiet and tangential notoriety that you could expect down at the pub after a hard days work. There’s a kind of quiet excitement from Les at being involved in something so obviously outside his ken, the connotation of sex and violence obvious. Joe says nothing, something that turns out to be less surprising as the story unfolds with the split time line of flashbacks that show the relationship between Joe and the dead girl, Cathie (Emily Mortimer).
The first impression you get of the marriage between Les and Ella is that the union is not exactly a happy one. The claustrophobic atmosphere of the barge that travels up and down the Clyde River means there is little or no privacy to be had and Ella seems too hardened and harsh to be anything but beaten down, something which shows itself to be completely wrong the minute Joe and Ella start having an affair. Ella is a force to be reckoned with, she owns the barge and she runs the ship with an iron fist, she is passionate and much stronger than first impressions might lead you to believe. Les gets pushed aside and ends up leaving with nothing but a suitcase in his hand, while Joe slots into place as Ella’s partner.
The thing about this story is that it unfolds in dual time lines, one showing Joe’s relationship with Cathie and his life as a would-be writer, while the other scrupulously follows Joe’s life aboard the barge and his exploits with the women around him. And therein lies the rub, so to speak. There are a couple of really interesting aspects to this movie. The gritty Scottish working-class kitchen-sink realism of the lives portrayed clash and collide with the overt estranged nihilism that brings to mind good old fashioned alienation literature like Camus’ The Stranger. There is obviously a lot going on beneath the surface that we are not all the way privileged to take part of. Joe is not a very likeable character. There is a lot of carnality in this story, Joe not only seduces Ella, he also has a short tryst with her widowed sister, Gwen (Therese Bradley) and the scenes from his relationship with Cathie are definitely not vanilla. There’s vanilla custard involved, though. It all comes together in a murder trial where we, the audience, know that the accused who may be executed for the offense, is innocent. The guilty party is actually in the court room, and the death was an accident, but none of those things are brought to light. Joe is at the center of all this, and I for one was not the least bit surprised at the choices he makes.
There are no visual markers indicating when we’re enjoying a flashback and that is actually enough of break from convention that you have to focus, and it struck me as an odd artistic choice to make. The fact that we are dealing with a morality play blended with an artistic thriller that relies pretty heavily on the mood it manages to set and the intensity of the performances means this is less easy to categorize and that has a certain appeal. It tastes a lot like a Noir thriller at times. The story doesn’t go into overly elaborate explanations or exposition, and in my book, these can be good things.
There is, however, an inherent distance created in the artistic choices made here. Tilda Swinton, Ewan McGregor and Peter Mullen give excellent fine tuned performances, which helps. It won’t make you like any of them any better, but that’s hardly the point. And, oddly enough, I wasn’t terribly impressed while watching this, but I found myself recalling more of it than I expected, which means it does something to stay with you and take on a life off the screen, which actually surprised me a little considering how unassuming the narrative style is. The complete and total lack of sentimentality is appealing, as well as the moral dilemmas that arise. The photography and the score all help with achieving the understated tensions running like deep currents in the narrative. It is certainly worth watching and it lingers with you, which is actually a good thing.