Those seeking a spiritual counterpart to the yin of Lynne Ramsay’s masterfully moody Morvern Callar will find their yang in David Mackenzie’s exquisitely sorrowful Young Adam. Art-house aficionados may recall that in Ramsay’s recent film, a young male writer commits suicide, leaving his simple girlfriend to absorb his very being. Here we discover anew what happens when an emblematic impassioned writer lives on but cannot write. The result is miserable yet achingly fulfilling to observe.
To clarify matters a little, nobody here is named Adam. Our protagonist is called Joe (Ewan McGregor), and he is best defined, by scenario and purpose, as a postwar smoker. This is possibly the actor’s dream role, as he not only tangles naked with the eminently pretentious Tilda Swinton (lap it up, culture vultures), he gets to smoke on camera pretty much nonstop throughout the film, even in the pouring rain. It’s the 1950s, in Scotland, which is technically part of Europe, where smoking is considered a profoundly respectable occupation. In addition to practicing this skill, Joe toils on a freight barge owned by Ella (Swinton) and operated by her salty husband Les (Peter Mullan), but soon enough all-consuming lust rears its ugly … rear … and poetic sadness descends.
Fortunately for us, director Mackenzie (The Last Great Wilderness) adapts in high style the novel by late junkie Beat author Alexander Trocchi (dubbed “cosmopolitan scum” by Scottish literary giant Hugh MacDiarmid). The leaden skies, cold industrial architecture, and inflamed desires of the characters are all of a piece, rendered volatile with consummate grace. The catalyst comes in the form of a dead young woman, scantily clad, found floating beside the barge by Joe and Les. As detectives — who in the film’s final third prove stupefyingly thick-headed — study the woman’s mysterious demise, Ella welcomes Joe down into her hull, if you get our drift. Naturally, their enthusiastic coupling doesn’t much please Les, nor the couple’s son James (Jack McElhone), who sums up Joe with one astute word: bastard.
We’ve seen a lot of sad sexcapades onscreen lately, particularly in the recent work of Helena Bonham Carter, as well as her and McGregor’s Big Fish associate Billy Crudup (who has made a career of being the Disruptive Lost Guy, crystalized in World Traveler). Nonetheless, with a little nod to David Lynch and a tip of the hat to Ken Loach, Mackenzie and McGregor confidently sustain the uniquely somber-sensualist timbre of Young Adam. In but one of many lyrical shots, the barge enters a stony tunnel, and we watch on deck as Joe’s handsome form becomes a black silhouette, and volumes are spoken.
All the actors keep the grace notes coming. Mullan’s turn as the cuckold, viewed in light of his earnest familial dedication and a gentle guitar serenade, greatly enhances the romantic tragedy. We also garner much about capricious femininity from Swinton’s enthusiastic cheating scenes — and her comeuppance. More intensely, flashbacks detailing Joe’s detached dalliances with an apparently ideal mate named Cathie (a superb Emily Mortimer) cut to the heart — or heartlessness — of these ravenous carnal pursuits.
And yes, a word about that: Young Adam is indeed rated NC-17, and as with The Dreamers earlier this year, hallelujah. The nudity and sexuality are part and parcel of the story, adding much intrigue and no exploitation. In fact, the rating seems overly harsh apart from one very intense scene involving custard. That said, I haven’t seen Mark Hamill in Corvette Summer in a long while, but if memory serves, McGregor is the first actor to offer Jedi schlong to the viewing public, some of whom may be appreciative.
Despite the fairly wretched tone, low points are few. Some may deem the film claustrophobic, languid, or pointlessly miserable. A case could also be made that seeing McGregor on a windswept northern beach conjures incompatible giggles because of his absurdist turn in the zany short film “Dessert.” But the gorgeous cinematography from Giles Nuttgens (who also lensed Swinton in that sillier drowning-by-numbers tale, The Deep End) and a wistful if somewhat incongruous noir-jazz score from David Byrne sustain the film’s haunting psychological affect.
As for the title, there’s a hint of deeper meaning here and there, as, for instance, Ella’s barge-of-sin is named the Atlantic Eve. But nothing is glaringly spelled out by Mackenzie. Rather, in an intelligent and enjoyable manner, he leaves us to form our own metaphorical conclusions. Temptation flourishes in the garden of Young Adam.