The film opens with a woman's corpse drifting slowly down the river. Cut to: Joe Taylor (McGregor) watching the corpse, without any of the surprise such a sight would provoke. Joe and a visibly excited Les (Mullan) fish the body out of the water.
The film, based on a novel by Alexander Trocchi, is set in 1950s Scotland. Joe works on a barge owned by Les and Ella (Swinton), that delivers coal to various ports between Glasgow and Edinburgh. Les and Ella share a turbid relationship, which isn't helped by the dreariness of their work. They rarely smile, aware of the mediocrity of their lives. All three of them seem depressed under an existential weight as heavy as the coal they transport. So the discovery of a corpse serves to bring a bit of excitement into Les's otherwise monotonous life. While he goes off to the pub to gloat, Joe and Ella begin an affair.
The present is interspersed with flashbacks that show Joe in a relationship with the corpse, Cathie. We learn that he is an aspiring writer. But frustrated by his inability to write anything worthwhile, he vents his anger on Cathie (Mortimer) by forcing himself on her. The violent eroticism of the film is deeply disturbing and Joe, tormented by his inadequacy as a writer, indulges in indiscriminate sex. Ella, harbouring the illusion that she and Joe can have a future together, leaves her husband, only to be abandoned in turn, by Joe. In the film, an innocent man is implicated in Cathie's death and sentenced to capital punishment. But even though Joe knows the truth behind it, he finds himself incapable of telling the authorities. When he finally does take action, it is too late, and the guilt of an innocent man's death deepens his crisis.
The sordidness of their lives is mirrored by the film's sombre colours and music. McGregor, with his tight facial expressions and controlled acting, is brilliant as someone desperate to fill his vacuous life. The constant, often brutal sex does at times seem revolting. But that is the very objective of the film. The characters themselves are filled with revulsion at the bestiality they are driven to. Though not a film for when you're down in the dumps, 'Young Adam' is definitely worth a watch.
Screenings of this film:
|2003/2004 Spring Term – (35mm)|