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Joe, a rootless young drifter, finds work on a barge travelling between Glasgow and Edinburgh, owned by Les and his wife Ella. One afternoon they discover the corpse of a young woman floating in the water. Accident? Suicide? Murder? As the police investigate and suspect is arrested, we discover that Joe knows more than he is letting on. Gradually we learn of Joe's past relationship with the dead woman. Meanwhile an unspoken attraction develops between Joe and Ella, heightening the claustrophobic tensions in the confined space of the barge. Written by
Although the audience may not realise it initially, this film is carefully constructed with two story lines, one of which is through flashbacks that blend so seamlessly with the 'present' that it feels like it's running in parallel. As well, the director is in no hurry to give the audience everything all at once. He lets the flashback story seep through the screen in its good time. However, he does plant along the way plenty of details that may seem a little strange but make perfect sense as the story unfolds. The best example is at the very beginning. Joe (Ewan McGregor) and his employer Les (Peter Mullan) fish a woman's dead body form the Glasgow-Edinburgh canal which their barge is working. In the same evening, when they are having supper in the cabin with Les' wife Ella (Tilda Swinton) and little boy, Les asks Joe if he thinks that it's murder. Joe breaks out into an almost poetic description of what he thinks has happened, that the woman committed suicide. This near-monologue is totally out of character with lowly barge hand Joe, until two things are revealed later: Joe the writer (or his aspiration to be one), and his relationship with the dead woman.
Not only the past, but even the present, is revealed ever so gradually. As the sexual liaison between Joe and Ella develops, we are under the impression that Ella is very much of an abused (though not physically or violently) wife totally under the control of her husband. It isn't until Les confronting Joe on the deck that we see an unexpected turn of events, with Les' short, crisp announcement of 'It's her barge'. Although Les has never been exactly a model husband, it turns out that Ella is the real boss, in a very literal sense. We now see the tough side of Ella. When Les packs his things and leaves, wondering when he can see his son who is now at boarding school, we can't help but feel a little sympathy for him.
The film is certainly not made to please the mainstream audience. First, on the practical side, it does not care about political correctness, and shows cigarette smoking scenes in abundance. The film is shot with a general tone of depressing gloominess, with a few well placed out-focused scenes, the most noticeable being the ending scene with Joe walking away from the river. Yet, there is a melancholic beauty in the sometimes grainy photography. At the very beginning, the long-range shot of the dock and background scenery is so beautifully framed that it can easily win a price at a photography contest. Equally melancholic is the general use of the cello in background music. Sound off is not used that much. In fact I only recall one, the sound of buses and other street vehicles, cutting from Joe with Ella in bed at the cabin of the barge to a flashback of a busy street scene of his re-encounter with his ex-girlfriend Cathie (Emily Mortimer). The motif of the hand mirror inscribed with loving words from Cathie to Joe is, however, slightly over-used.
As to my summary line, all of the more subtle exchanges in the film are made in silence, rather than with dialogue. The two best examples are of course Joe's seduction of Ella and his first encounter with Cathy (in that order in the film, but in reverse order chronologically). There is of course dialogue but by the time it gets to the dialogue, the parties have already established an understanding beyond words.
One reviewer makes an insightful comparison of Joe to Camus' Outsider. Indeed, rather than being portrayed as an irresponsible libertine, Joe is shown as a confused outsider, often driven by his own physical desire, but not entirely without sensibility. This persona is echoed by the title Young Adam, still young but post-Garden of Eden, tossed into a cheerless world and doomed to an endless exile.
The acting is first class all around. McGreagor shows that he is made of sterner stuff than needed for a light-sabre-happy Obi-wan Kenobi or a love-sick Christian. Swinton works the layers of Ella amazingly well, first the passive, guilt-troubled wife (particularly at the second liaison when Joe breaks the lamp) then the liberated woman temporarily carried away with ideas of divorce and remarriage, and finally very quickly coming down to earth again. More easily overlooked is Mullan playing the cockolded husband, maybe not to the stupendous height of the gentleman at Camelot, but with his own grass-root poignancy. Mortimer's role may not be as demanding as the other three's, but her competent portrayal of Cathie's endearing young charm is quite necessary to make Joe's subsequent remorse convincing.
Young Adam is not for everybody, but definitely a marvellous cinematic experience to those with the capacity to appreciate.
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