All of the promise that was evident in Scottish helmer David Mackenzie’s flawed freshman feature, “The Last Great Wilderness” (2002), is richly achieved in his second pic, “Young Adam,” a resonant, beautifully modulated relationships drama set amid the canals and gray stone buildings of early ’50s Scotland. Strongly cast, with an especially fine perf by Ewan McGregor as an amoral drifter caught up in a couple’s passionless marriage, this gently atmospheric pic establishes Mackenzie as an accessible stylist within mid-range contempo British cinema. Film looks set for a long fest career, with moderately warm biz in upscale venues on the back of strong critical support.
Script is based on a novel by Scottish-Italian writer Alexander Trocchi, a bohemian, Beat Generation figure who grew up in Glasgow, got involved in the Paris literary avant-garde, and in 1955 moved to New York. He became a serious heroin addict and (like his characters in “Young Adam”) lived on a barge. A friend of such figures as Leonard Cohen, William Burroughs and Norman Mailer, he died from his addiction in Britain in the ’60s.
Though set in the socially and sexually hidebound Britain of the early ’50s, sex is the defining force in all the characters’ lives. From the opening shot of a young woman’s body, naked except for a petticoat, pulled from the waters around Glasgow, film has an undercurrent of charged sexuality in which copulation is portrayed devoid of romance and as a purely physical release from social or emotional frustrations.
When pic begins, young Joe Taylor (McGregor) is working on a barge plying between Glasgow and Edinburgh. It’s owned by an average working class stiff, Les Gault (Peter Mullan), and is also a cramped home to him, nagging wife Ella (Tilda Swinton), and their young son, Jim (Jack McElhone).
After they fish the body out of the water, the incident forms a topic of conversation as they chug along the River Clyde to Edinburgh. It’s not long, however, before Joe starts making advances to Ella, whose marriage is devoid of physical passion.
Many of the sexual encounters take place in the open, rather than in more cozy surroundings. After leaving Les at a pub one night, Joe — who endears himself to the couple by rescuing Jim from drowning — and Ella have a frantic bout of fully-clothed sex on the towpath prior to Les’ drunken return. Soon the two are exchanging bodily juices with Les only a few feet away on the barge.
Not far into the drama, without any warning, pic starts to flashback to an unspecified time when Joe took up with a beautiful young woman, Cathie (Emily Mortimer), whom he met on a beach. Scenes from that relationship run side by side with the present.
In Edinburgh, Joe is introduced to Ella’s sister, Gwen (Therese Bradley). In a nicely written cameo that introduces a welcome breath of humor, boozy Gwen promptly takes Joe round a corner and gets him to service her standing up — all in the space of a single cigarette.
Pic is more a sustained mood piece than a plot-driven mystery or drama. Relationships remain open-ended, unresolved or simply passing liaisons of sexual convenience. These are all characters literally drifting along through a still stratified society that’s mostly joyless and make-do.
Joe is an unfettered spirit who touches many people’s lives without ever engaging with their day-to-day responsibilities, and the film’s only real drama lies in whether he’ll sacrifice his personal freedom for the benefit of others. Some auds may feel that, at the end of the day, the pic doesn’t actually add up to much.
Given the relative lack of dimension, atmosphere and performances are everything here, and pic scores on both fronts. Giles Nuttgens’ widescreen lensing — cold and blue-tinged in exteriors and warmer and ruddier in the cramped barge’s interiors (agilely shot in a studio) — is pointed without being showy. David Byrne’s melancholy, gently churning chamber score adds texture to the visuals. Pic is classically composed and directed, sans handheld naturalism.
McGregor is tops as Joe, underplaying the character’s opportunism without ladling on the charm. Swinton and Mortimer are equally good as two very different women who fall for Joe’s sexual magnetism. Mullan, solid in a smaller role, is more restrained than usual. Bradley is briefly terrific as Gwen.
Period detail is good and natural looking, both in clothes and props. Running time is just right, with no flab.