Young Adam

Dirty, damp and bone-chilling. And let us not forget the bowl of custard
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Perhaps it's not entirely fair to say that the idea of art cinema is profoundly un-British. Un-English, perhaps. David Mackenzie's Young Adam is a thoroughly Scottish film in subject and in mood; its steely poetry, and very European belief in letting images speak as much as words, can only be compared in recent British cinema with the work of another young Scottish director, Lynne Ramsay. Young Adam is based on a 1954 novel by Alexander Trocchi, the Glasgow-born writer affiliated to the Beats, whose life and work were very much a revolt against British insularity and staidness, and against Scotland itself. Suffice to say, Mackenzie's dirty, damp, bone-chilling film is no tourist board advert for lochs and glens.

The star is Ewan McGregor, but despite his freshly alert ingenu looks, he has no truck here with his usual beaming glamour; he surely took the part in full awareness that his matinee idol image would incur some serious bruising. McGregor plays Joe, a young man employed on a coal barge working the canals between Glasgow and Edinburgh in the early Fifties. The skipper Les (Peter Mullan) is a weary ex-sea dog, whose sour wife Ella (Tilda Swinton) skulks below decks, tending their son and spitting dark imprecations at her husband. At night, Joe spies on the pair's failed couplings, and it surely can't be long before he and Ella start an affair. What seems to be the catalyst is Joe's discovery of a dead woman floating in the water, a mystery on which Joe and Les become pruriently fixated, to Ella's disgust.

As Joe and Ella embark on a surreptitious course of tight-lipped sex, the fragmented narrative gradually unveils Joe's recent past. The film, at first dominated by overcast blue-grey, briefly opens into an ice-cream coloured idyll, in a flashback to Joe's seaside meeting with Cathie (Emily Mortimer); but their ensuing relationship soon belies its breezy start. The film's most disturbing moment involves Joe's sexual humiliation of Cathie with a bowl of custard. Starkly staged, it's a scene which critics have found hard to avoid comparing to the butter moment in Last Tango in Paris - and of course, you can't help feeling facetious when you do. In fact, Trocchi added the episode to a late version of the text, persuaded by his original publisher, Parisian art/ porn entrepreneur Maurice Girodias, to spice it up. But Mackenzie treats the scene in a way that's neither sexy nor tawdry, more comparable perhaps to the episodes of sexual attrition in Polanski's misunderstood Bitter Moon. Either way, the scene shows the unglamorous reality behind Joe's self-image as charming literary drifter.

To some degree the film, like the book, is a study of a certain type: a disenchanted, French-inflected variant of the Fifties Angry Young Man. But Joe isn't angry so much as self-loathing, emotionally autistic, arguably sociopathic. Where Trocchi's first-person narrative gives us Joe from inside, Mackenzie - wisely avoiding a voice-over - keeps us at a dispassionate distance, slowly offering clues to his character but making us do the detective work. A smart move on Mackenzie's part is to add touches that locate Joe in the cultural climate of the time: he listens to Charles Mingus while failing to write his novel, and is forever reading orange-cover Penguins (though you squint in vain to see the titles). He's a Fifties would-be intellectual with Hemingway dreams of escape, but the film mercilessly dismantles the banality of his romantic illusion: Joe is metaphorically trapped below decks, a canal slogger rather than an ocean-goer.

Mackenzie has created a whole world here - a claustrophobic, austerity era Scotland, grey sky clamped over grey water. But, despite a few telling hints of set dressing - Mortimer's skirts alone fix the time perfectly - this is not remotely a period piece. Young Adam suggests a time of the mind, rather than strictly of history, much as David Cronenberg's similarly introspective Spider gave us an indeterminately decayed imaginative version of the Fifties/ Sixties. (A sequence involving Ella's grimly brassy sister-in-law, a brittle turn by Therese Bradley, particularly evokes that film.)

Young Adam is a very physical film, not just in the sexuality: it's about bodies squeezed in tight cabins, men's chests grimed with coal dust. The sex scenes are soberingly matter-of-fact, joyless strainings with shoes hiked up against thighs, or on cold, wet sidings under a truck at night: although it's here, when Cathie undresses, that we get the film's only intimation, bitterly ironic though it proves, that sex might be euphoric.

Mackenzie and his cast prove unusually sensitive to the language of looks and reactions: McGregor's finely downplayed Joe reveals himself in a series of almost subliminal ambivalent expressions. Though he dominates, all four leads excel: Mortimer plays a woman too painfully exposed, too honest and lucid to deserve Joe; while Mullan's Les, at first jovially ox-like, poignantly becomes more tender and childlike as he evolves. Tilda Swinton's is the kind of performance that's usually described as brave - partly because in her scenes with bonny boy Ewan, she's unafraid to look as palely, prosaically corporeal as a Stanley Spencer nude. Early on, shooting glances of suspicion and awakening lust across the cabin, her face looks as vulnerable to the elements as if scoured with the same brush Ella might use on the decking. The portrayal of Ella's resentments and troubled appetites is one of Swinton's subtlest performances yet.

There's a remarkable concern for nuance and image here, with a narrative tautness to back it up. Mackenzie's debut, the scrappy digital lark The Last Great Wilderness, suggested a director up for a ramble on the wild side, but it never hinted at the rigour he achieves here. He and cinematographer Giles Nuttgens share not only an eye for the stresses and weatherings of the human body, but also a sense of the sweep of landscapes, the heaviness of coalyards and rain-flattened funfairs. Young Adam barely puts a foot wrong, right down to a moody score by David Byrne (connecting with his Scottish roots), with its evocatively watery textures. It is bracingly chilly, the sort of film they just don't make here. Well, perhaps they do now, and let's hope others will follow.