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Young Adam

Director: David Mackenzie

U.K.| 2003. Colour. Anamorphic. Dolby digital stereo. 98 mins


This faithful adaptation of Scottish ‘Beat’ generation writer Alexander Trocci’s 1957 novel casts Ewan McGregor as a haunted, existential anti-hero adrift in a world of gossip, moral hypocrisy and tabloid headlines. The contemporary resonance is clear, but writer-director David Mackenzie’s sparse screenplay and Giles Nuttgens murky cinematography place the action firmly in the dock area and canals of 1950s Glasgow. In the striking opening scene, the aimless Joe (McGregor) and his down-to-earth pal Les (Peter Mullan) fish a young woman’s body from the murky waters of the River Clyde. Did she slip, was she pushed, or was it suicide?
Joe later takes a job on the barge which Les operates with his dowdy but oddly lubricious wife, Ella (Tilda Swinton), while showing an unusual interest in the drowned woman’s fate and the prurient press coverage of the police investigation. After exchanging smouldering looks of latent desire, Ella and Joe begin a torrid sexual affair. Flashbacks to Joe’s earlier love affair with the vivacious Cathie (Emily Mortimer) show that, despite his languid lustfulness, he is chronically distanced from his emotions. His search for true intimacy is doomed to failure. The many sex scenes are unflinching in their carnality, but Mackenzie’s skilful directing of the actors ensures that they always move the story forward, deepening our understanding of the characters and throwing light on their complicated relationships.
The result is an edgier, grittier Scottish riff on Albert Camus’s L’Etranger, with Joe clearly far from innocent, but perhaps not as guilty as he feels. Some may find it hard to identify with the alienated Joe, but for all his flaws and amorality, we sense that he is sincere in his search for authentic experience in a world of sham emotions and repressive morality.

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