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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
The films focus on translating the novels first person perspective is clearly an obsession for this director. Never is the audiences attention allowed outside of Joe's point of view. We see only what he sees, we hear nothing more and we remember his life in little snatches, moments of dark disgusting and secret clarity he keeps from the world.
The film starts with a corpse, a barely dressed woman floating in the Clyde that is fished out by Joe; a young man working the barges for reasons that are not immediately clear. This brutal beginning in which we see Joe lay a tender hand on the cold dead flesh of the girl begins the film with a level of tension that rarely leaves the screen. Through his actions and - more importantly - his inactions we peel away the outer layers of a man on the run from himself, from responsibility and from guilt. We see him commit two murders by mission of inaction and we see him quietly dealing with that in one last lingering shot that tells us he will never change.
Joe is sexually driven to destroy life around him and he uses sex as a weapon against himself and against the possibility of settling or creating a future. He could be a writer, but he lacks the courage to read his own work. He could be a father, but he cannot face the thought of commitment. He could be a lover, but he makes love to women only as a means to an end, rejecting and pushing them away once the act is completed.
And this is the film in a nutshell. A relentless character study of an unpleasant man who punishes those around him for his own failings. Yes there is gratuitous sex in this film, but it has its place, it defines the moments of change in everyone else's lives while underlining the static character of Joe, played with utter brilliance by Ewen McGregor. The sex is cold, rather than erotic, reflecting the characters contempt for those he uses. Without the detailed sex scenes the film would be less than it is, but audiences expected to be titillated will come away disappointed.
Not without flaws this film has that perplexing title and a scene in which Joe beats his girlfriend after covering her with custard. The scene is alien to both the film and the character of Joe who gives no indication of being violent, rather a man that will walk out on a problem rather than face the awful possibility of confrontation. In fact Ewen McGregor seems embarrassed to play this scene, as though he too cannot link this outburst to the character he is playing.
But this minor quibble apart the film remains an artistically shot work, played with brilliance by everyone. Its rare to see a film where the whole cast are brilliant, where the script is clearly cut and the direction thought through. The visual aspect of the film is also tremendous with each shot being laid out in front of us like a painting, a wondrous work of art that moves and flows to show us the 60's post war Brittan with utter clarity.
Hollywood please take note.
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