Young Adam
Written and directed by David Mackenzie
from a novel by Alexander Trocchi


The debut feature film from director David Mackenzie (whose short films have won a number of awards) is the kind of moody, reflective character piece the English do best. Filmed precedents include Alfie and Billy Liar. Literary ones include DH Lawrence's The Rainbow (to give just one example), Thomas Hardy's Return of the Native or W. Somerset Maugham's Of Human Bondage.

These are dark, brooding meditations on the nature of human character and behavior that explore the dead ends at which some people arrive, urged on to greater awareness and connection by their natural impulses, but fatally restrained by flaws in their nature they barely comprehend.

Mackenzie adapted the script from the 1960s novel by Alexander Trocchi and it is both a "period piece" and a very contemporary re-examination of some important psychological issues that first started to be addressed in film and literature around the middle of the last century.

The central character in Young Adam is Joe (Ewan McGregor) - an apparently rootless drifter with artistic aspirations who is as irresistible to women as he is clueless about his life's meaning and direction. He works as a live-in laborer on a canal boat hauling coal, scrap-metal and other cargo through southern Scotland.

Joe's recent life unfolds in a series of flashbacks that explain his connection to the opening sequence in which he and his boss Les (Peter Mullan) find the body of a drowned woman, Cathie (Emily Mortimer) in the River Clyde.

It is eventually revealed that Joe has had a relationship with Cathie, is the father of her unborn child and was present at her accidental drowning - unable to do anything to save her. When another man is arrested and tried for her murder, Joe struggles to find a way to deal with the situation.

Meanwhile, Joe begins a relationship with Les's wife Ella (Tilda Swinton) that sees him replace Les as Captain of the barge - but Joe is frightened by Ella's talk of domesticity, and easily gives in to the wiles of Ella's recently-widowed, wanton sister Gwen (Therese Bradley).

All of the characters in this film live at the edge of conventional society and morality. Joe - like those around him - is not so much immoral as amoral. They are people without only a confused, superficial sense of themselves and their world, and thus without much of a moral center. Like Lawrence's farm-family they are out of touch with themselves and their deeper nature, and the glimpses they do receive - mostly through the longing for connection that finds expression in their sexuality - only frighten and confuse them.

The original novel is set in the 1950s - before the Sexual Revolution and Swinging London - which explains the repressed, joyless, desperate neediness that informs all of the sexuality. Although the film received an NC-17 rating for its sexual frankness, it neither romanticizes nor eroticizes the physical intimacies between the characters - treating them rather as a sort of "act of God," an overpowering compulsion the characters barely understand and by which they are incapable of being transformed.

The theme of sexual acting-out as a substitute for self-knowledge, as a failed defense against alienation and loneliness, as an irresistible instinct that pries us out of our ordinary lives in disruptive, frightening and sometimes tragic ways, appears frequently in English literature - especially in the first half of the twentieth century. Mackenzie's re-visitation of it here raises interesting questions about the nature of our current understanding of this important part of our nature, and how far we have actually come from those "bad old days."

Performances are uniformly excellent. The fearless Ewan McGregor represents his character's flatness, his emotional emptiness, with simplicity and candor, neither romanticizing it, nor playing it for tragedy - simply giving embodiment to the idea of a "life of quiet desperation." His Joe is enigmatic and opaque - to himself most of all - but McGregor manages to make him interesting rather than merely baffling, and makes us hope for Joe right up to the end.

I think it is possible that Tilda Swinton can do anything - and will, if she thinks it has merit. She inhabits her character's mix of fierce longing, frustration and stern self-control with a low-key, almost dead-pan austerity that is far more effective than any scenery chewing could have been. She has several scenes that are electrifying in their intensity, although she plays them with only the most subtle of indicators.

Peter Mullan's stoic, half-anesthetized character is a foil for the others that hits just the right note. His combination of fortitude, suppressed anger and resigned hopelessness creates a suitably grey background against which the few bright sparks the script offers flare dramatically.

Emily Mortimer brings a painful blending of still-hopeful idealism and premature cynicism to her character that makes her perhaps the most sympathetic and saddest of the central quartet. The brief flashes of life she breathes into the sullen emotional and physical landscape are reminiscent of Eliot's lines about April being "the cruelest month/ breeding lilacs in the dead land."

The film is magnificently photographed, understated and devoid of "beauty shots" in the conventional sense (although there are some images of remarkable beauty). The Director of Photography, Giles Nuttgens, effectively creates a sense of the oppressive, circumscribed, claustrophobic lives the characters are leading through framing and composition of the images. He adds an essential element to a film that uses the "feel" of the characters' world to tell us volumes about them.

The color palette is carefully chosen. While most of the film is shot with a low contrast that makes it seem like black and white, there are selected moments of glowing color that only serve to emphasize the characters' lack of connection to their context - the "black and whiteness" of their lives. The set design is gritty with the relentless working-class grime of the classic English neo-realist films of the 50s and 60s.

The music is by David Byrne - former front man for the Talking Heads - who has created a restrained, melancholy score that effectively reflects the imagery and narrative, rather than trying to direct it. It's very unobtrusiveness is a measure of its careful crafting - consciously subordinated to and coordinated with the rest of the production, to act as a subtle note of emphasis or contrast, without seeking to manipulate audience emotions.

This is a film that takes head-on the possibility that some lives may not be redeemable - that some people - maybe most people - may not be able to find the strength and courage to live their lives beyond the surface.

Confronting audiences with that possibility is to challenge us to recognize the dynamics of isolation and alienation in our own lives and in the lives around us, and to react in a way that seeks to rise above the sense of doomed fatality the script describes.

It's a tough trick to pull off - because the first reaction has to be something like: "what a depressing story!" But the best writers - and the film-makers here - have included enough clues (Ella's head-long rush down the tow path to her son is one; Cathy's attitude towards Joe at their first meeting is another; the letter Joe writes at the end is a third), enough hints of alternative possibilities, that one is drawn to speculate on how things might have been done differently and turned out differently, if only the characters had acted with a little more courage and self-awareness. That in turn can be a stimulating invitation to self-reflection.

 

That's my take on it. What's yours?