Writer/director David MacKenzie's gritty adaptation of Alexander Trocchi's down Beat murder mystery set on a barge in the canals of Scotland.
Disillusioned young writer Joe (Ewan McGregor) takes a job on a barge that traverses the waterways of 1950's Scotland with a bargeman Les (Peter Mullan), his dowdy wife Ella (Tilda Swinton) and their young son Jim (Jack McElhone). While working outside one morning, Joe and Les discover the body of a young woman floating in the water, naked save for a pale petticoat trimmed with lace. Les eagerly reports the discovery to the police, while Joe remains reticent even after the police have been informed. As the investigation and subsequent trial unfold it becomes increasingly clear in a series of flashbacks that this unfortunate young woman, whose name was Cathie (Emily Mortimer), was hardly a stranger to the young bargeman. Meanwhile, a restless Joe seduces Ella, who's unhappy in her marriage to the hard-drinking Les, which leads to the eventual dissolution of their marriage.
Ewan McGregor, having loosed himself from the acting tether that is the Star Wars franchise, comes up for air and presents his first really good dramatic performance in a long time. As Joe, the evasive, feral young Scotsman, McGregor conveys the moral ambivalence of man without a cause. We learn his relationship with Cathie was fraught with all kinds of sexual and emotional danger for both of them, more than either seemed able to deal with. Although Joe seduces Ella, awakening in the dowdy wife a desperate and yearning sexuality, he seems as disinterested in their welfare as he is in his own. He is not self-destructive so much as he is ambivalent and noncommittal about his direction in life. Lax and amoral, Joe wanders below the radar, seemingly oblivious to the rules of etiquette adhered to, at least on the surface, so religiously by others. People around him suffer because of things he's done, and he casually just walks out of their lives without a backward glance. This is true even of Cathie, the woman he loved or came closest to loving. McGregor shows his outstanding acting abilities in one final moment, when in a stroke of cowardice, he makes a choice he can't go back on. Finding Cathie's memory and the fact of his having known her a threat to his safety, he simply casts his last possessions of hers away, in one quick motion letting slip the last evidence that they ever met. His surprise at who he has become and whom he now will be is beautiful in its subtlety and the look on McGregor's face is remarkable; it is an expression of amazement at his previously unknown ability to do something so complete and irrevocable. Swinton is typically intriguing as Ella, a hardworking woman who latches onto Joe, who provides the only exciting force in her otherwise static life. Mortimer's Cathie, while not as well drawn as McGregor's Joe, possesses an appropriate amount of recklessness and earthy sweetness.
Scottish director David MacKenzie creates a bleak, low-contrast portrait of Scotland, full of gray skies, black coal, and dingy, cramped quarters only intermittently punctuated by patches of brilliant green grass and blue sky. MacKenzie's postwar Scotland is a place in which all manner of untoward activities go on that no one dares to acknowledge. There is nothing terribly revolutionary about this portrait of the secret underbelly of a place, nor is there a particular creative vibrancy to this film. MacKenzie directs his actors with skill, but there is something lacking in the story that fails to be as shocking as perhaps it was when Trocchi wrote it back in the 60's.
Young Adam is a well drawn, if not very unique, depiction of the intimate lives of average people that lie just below the waterline and what happens when their secret indiscretions float to the surface. McGregor's terrific performance as the amoral Joe infuses the film with much-needed vigor.