A young drifter named Joe finds work on a barge owned by the down-to-earth Les and his enigmatic wife Ella. One afternoon Joe and Les happen upon the corpse of a young woman floating in the water and the questions begin. Accident? Suicide? Murder? As the police investigate the case and a suspect is arrested, it becomes evident that Joe knows more about the drowned woman than he will admit.

A moody little drama that satisfies.

If you forgive Ewan McGregor for his performance in Star Wars Episode II (2002) – and let's face it, we have to forgive pretty much every actor in that film and those films, plural – you'd have to acknowledge that, with his work to date, he’s is one helluva an actor.

Perhaps one could venture so far as to say that McGregor could even be one of the best of his generation. From Down With Love (2003), Big Fish (2003), Moulin Rouge (2001), Velvet Goldmine (1998), and venturing all the way back to one of his earliest, Trainspotting (1996), McGregor has demonstrated a big acting range, interesting choices in roles, and always (save again for you know what), excellent and compelling performances.

So no surprise then that he leaves his indelible mark in Young Adam, a movie that is sure to divide audiences with its austere style and stark, nihilistic story. Of course the publicity surrounding Young Adam has been all to do with McGregor and his co-star Tilda Swinton getting their kits off for the many sex scenes that drive the story. But there is a whole lot more going on underneath this smart little number.

Young Adam is an adaptation of Alexander Trocchi’s book, first-published in 1957 as a pornographic novel. The Scottish writer – now considered a Beat 'icon’ and often compared with Albert Camus – re-released a 'cleaned up’ version in 1966, which he sanctioned as 'definitive’. Described as an 'existential thriller’, Young Adam is set in bleak 1950s Glasgow, with McGregor playing protagonist Joe, a guy just shy of being itinerant although he is very much a drifter. We first meet Joe as he and his boss Les (the brilliant Peter Mullan) fish the dead body of a young woman out of the river on which they work. Joe is the first mate in a family business running barges, owned by Les’ wife Ella (again, the brilliant Tilda Swinton), a woman on whom Joe has big designs. They embark on a torrid sexual affair as the mystery surrounding the woman’s death – who we learn is called Cathie (Emily Mortimer) – heats up.

I love this film for its stillness and what it is able to communicate without words – the sex scenes in particular are a feat in acting skill and great, great direction, reminiscent of Patrice Chereau’s Intimacy (2001), another movie that used sex scenes in a similar way, to drive the story. Made three years ago, this is Scottish director David McKenzie’s first feature film (his second, Asylum, is due out in Australia this year). And what a sure-handed, sophisticated effort it surely is.

McKenzie cannily selected cinematographer Giles Nuttgens – who shot The Deep End (2001), another coolly-lensed, cryptic murder mystery with Tilda Swinton – to help create the sparse emotional world in which Joe exists, and he puts his icy composition to great use. McKenzie successfully translates to screen the introspective nature of the book’s first-person narration.

This is not the place where dreams are made, rather where nightmares are lived through. What we are left with is a perfectly rendered portrait of a not-very-nice guy seeing what he can get away with in life. The results are haunting, disturbing and kind of sad. Young Adam is therefore the type of film that challenges the escapist imperative of contemporary cinema, which might explain why it has taken so long for this film to gain an Australian release. Fans of moody little dramas like this one though are going to love it.


Watch 'Young Adam'

Wednesday 26 August, 9:30pm on SBS World Movies
Thursday 27 August, 11:40pm on SBS World Movies

UK, 2003
Genre: Drama, Thriller
Language: English
Director: David Mackenzie
Starring: Peter Mullan, Ewan McGregor, Tilda Swinton, Emily Mortimer

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