Young Adam

Outlandish, rare: a homegrown movie that rates as a genuine artistic achievement
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Week in, week out, some dire British movie plods into a Soho screening room, puts its head on the block and waits for the critics to swing the axe. If it actually makes it to the multiplex, the public by and large ignore it - they'd rather watch something American, and you can't blame them. Indeed, the idea of a homegrown movie that rates as a genuine artistic achievement, as opposed to a loudly fanfared event (such as Calendar Girls), seems almost outlandish, something so rare we might not even recognise it. Well, I'm happy to report that such a movie is now here. It's called Young Adam, and it deserves your immediate attention.

The odd thing is that it's not a hugely "difficult" film to have made. It's not lavishly budgeted, there's no expensive location work and there's only one major-league star involved. Its young Scottish director, David Mackenzie, had no startling form hitherto, just a small, ill-focused debut feature called The Last Great Wilderness. Yet, relying on only slight means, he has made something mighty here, an existential drama spiked with a sliver of noir, and braced with disgust for the moral narrowness of the time. It is based on Alexander Trocchi's cult novel of the same name and stars Ewan McGregor as Joe Taylor, a young drifter who works on the barges between Glasgow and Edinburgh in the 1950s. One day he and his boss Les (Peter Mullan) fish out the corpse of a young woman from the Clyde, and from the look on Joe's face we sense some connection between him and the dead girl.

The film operates within a dual time-frame. Joe's quotidian life lugging coal along the canals is enlivened by an attraction to Les's sexually frustrated wife, Ella (Tilda Swinton), with whom he contrives to sleep while Les is out at the pub. An interleaved flashback traces Joe's previous involvement with Cathie (Emily Mortimer), a softly spoken actress who dotes on him. Joe is a chancer and a charmer, but it's hard to know what makes him tick, apart from sex. "You're nice, Joe," croons Ella. But is he? At one point Ella's young son falls into the canal, and Joe unhesitatingly dives in and pulls him to safety. Later, however, he admits that having a kid on the barge irritates him so much he'd like to push him overboard, and we also discover that he's not always been so gallant in the face of a drowning.

The most impressive aspect of Ewan McGregor's performance is his stillness. Most of the time he hardly seems to do anything, yet there's an ineffably sly and feral streak in his demeanour. To be honest, he was a revelation to me. There's not a single film I've liked McGregor in since Trainspotting, and I include his inept yodelling in Moulin Rouge. Here he keeps himself reined in, watchful and calculating through the smokescreen of his roll-ups; we can't quite get a handle on him, at least not until a flashback scene towards the end, when Cathie comes back to their flat and complains about his laziness. In fact, Joe hasn't been entirely idle; he's made a large bowl of custard, which he proceeds to throw all over her. Then he spanks her with a wooden slat and sexually assaults her, enacting a kind of Last Tango with kitchen condiments. Listening to Mortimer's cries, pitched between laughter and distress, is almost as strange as the subsequent scene of Joe returning home late and, without a word of apology, climbing into bed and Cathie's willing embrace.

Mackenzie handles the pace of this beautifully, steering the narrative along with the confidence of an old bargehand. One gets the very rare sense of a director who knows exactly what effects he wants to create. The mood of ominous disquiet is conveyed through his sparely written script or else through his simply trusting the actors; so much of the film is invested in looks and silences, and Tilda Swinton's pinched expressions of disappointment are often more eloquent than any speech. It's also enhanced by the inky photography of Giles Nuttgens, who seems to have a natural aptitude for filming water - his previous credits include The Beach, Swimfan and the terrific noir thriller The Deep End. He mostly plays variations on blue, whether in the treacly blue-black of canal water, the bluish-grey of dawn light and cigarette smoke, or the cold blue of McGregor's eyes staring unreadably into the distance. He also likes to express bodily disgust in a sudden close-up, such as a fly trekking around a naked breast, or a cigarette left to burn during a furtive back-street coupling.

Indeed, a larger sense of moral abhorrence stalks Young Adam, filtered through Joe's burgeoning realisation that if he doesn't come forward with information about the drowned woman, an innocent man might hang. The public's slavering appetite for a murder trial is set against Joe's private agonies of conscience, but Mackenzie makes a play for our sympathy only to turn around and mock us for the sentiment. The note of misanthropy rings as mournfully as a leper's bell.

Yet you will leave this film not downcast but exhilarated and cheered at the thought of its stylish aplomb and its refusal to be ingratiating. The leanness of its script speaks very well of David Mackenzie's visual confidence, and makes one eager to see how he will handle his next project, Patrick McGrath's Gothic love story Asylum. If it has anything like the skill and audacity of this picture, it should be a treat.