Making its premiere in the UK after a rapturous reception in Cannes, David Mackenzie's Young Adam opened the Edinburgh Film Festival last night with a bleak but beautifully directed tale of alienation and sexual compulsion.
The film is based on Alexander Trocchi's cult 1957 book, written in a deadpan existentialist style, about a dropout Beat-style writer named Joe (played by Ewan McGregor) who navigates the canals between Glasgow and Edinburgh. Using a light touch when it comes to period detail, it's a story that could almost be taking place now or a hundred years ago, so timeless is its stripped down evocation of murky waters, frustrated marriages and loveless couplings.
Young Adam opens with Joe and his bargeman boss, Les (Peter Mullan), pulling the greening corpse of a young woman, dressed only in a thin slip, from the canal.
The police suspect foul play, and when the identity of the unfortunate lassie, Cathie (Emily Mortimer), is discovered, suspicion falls on her married beau back in Glasgow. But Joe knows otherwise, and flashbacks reveal that he was her lover years ago and that they met for a canalside liaison on the very night she died. In the film's queasiest scene, Joe pours ketchup over Cathie during a row, aggression turning into a spot of Last Tango in Paris-style sex. PC viewers may be outraged by the depiction of misogyny, but in no way is it a misogynistic film, rather one about self-loathing and its deleterious effects.
The cast is excellent, from Tilda Swinton's flinty but vulnerable Ella, Les's wife with whom Joe embarks on an increasingly daring affair, to Mullan's likeable drunk and Mortimer's fragile slut.
But most of all, McGregor reminds us that he is capable of much more than flashing that wolfish grin. Recognising the best role he's had in years, he stretches his vocal skills with precision, craft and restraint. It's a career-changing performance in what is likely to stand as one of the best British films of the year.
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