Young Adam



UK 2003 : David MACKENZIE : 98 mins

Joe (Ewan McGregor) is a proto-beat wannabe-novelist eking out a living as a barge-hand in early 1950s Glasgow. He lives and works on the vessel owned by Les (Peter Mullan), and among his many sexual conquests is Les’s unsatisfied wife Ella (Tilda Swinton). Another is Cathie (Emily Mortimer) who, as we see in flashback, lived with Joe and supported him while he laboured on his uncompleted novel. When a young woman’s semi-naked body is found floating in the river Clyde, it’s identified as Cathie – but what role, if any, did Joe play in her demise?

Despite the noirish love triangle, barge-bound claustrophobia, and hints of murder-mystery, Young Adam isn’t a thriller. Instead Mackenzie (adapting Alexander Trocchi’s novel) and his solid cast craft a mood-piece character study of the amoral, perpetually priapic Joe – who screws every adult female character with a speaking part. The sex, while comically excessive by the standards of current British cinema, is justified: unable to express himself in fiction, and troubled with guilt over Cathie, Joe relieves himself the only way he knows how: compulsive, passionless copulation.

Unfortunately, the wall-to-wall sex turns out to be the most distinctive feature of Young Adam – a slightly depressing retreat into ‘professional’ film-making after the ragged delights of Mackenzie’s The Last Great Wilderness. This follow-up, while much more even, sustained and stylish, could do with a little of that picture’s anything-goes energy: Mackenzie seems determined to show he’s on his best behaviour, capable of handling a (relatively) large budget and big-name actors. He’s such a safe pair of hands on the tiller, however, that Young Adam ends up rather like the Gaults’ barge: we do get where we’re going eventually, but this is, in the 21st century, an old-fashioned mode of transport.

3rd August, 2003
(seen 6th June: Showcase, Dudley)

by Neil Young

For a feature length review of Young Adam click here