Young Adam is an impressive drama from writer/director David Mackenzie. Based on a novel by the mid-20th century Scottish writer Alexander Trocchi, Mackenzie’s screenplay is a skillfully wrought amorality tale delivered by Mackenzie the director with both subtlety and highly refined style.
There’s no character named Adam in the film, but the canal barge on which a good deal of it takes place is named "Atlantic Eve" to be sure the allusion won’t be missed. The Adam is Joe Taylor (Ewan McGregor), a restless, would-be writer who has taken work as the mate on a canal barge owned by Ella Gault (Tilda Swinton) and operated by her husband, Les (Peter Mullan). Along with the Gault’s young son, the three live on the barge as it plies its way carrying coal between Glasgow and Edinburgh.
The love-triangle-on-a-barge situation immediately calls to mind Puccini’s potboiler verismo opera, Il Tabarro, but Mackenzie has a more ruminative scenario in mind here and a more complex take on questions of responsibility and guilt. From the start, Joe’s discovery of a woman’s corpse floating in the canal sets up a degree of tension; the mystery of her death simmers in the background in the first part of the film, becoming a key plotline later on.
Joe, goodlooking and seductive, is, if not sexually compulsive, at least an Olympic-class philanderer. Virtually every woman he meets is drawn into a sexual situation with him. But he doesn’t coerce and he doesn’t make promises; he’s a young stud spreading his seed, Adam before the forbidden fruit, predating the idea of good or evil.
But, though Joe himself seems not to suffer from his behavior, it has consequences for which he only belatedly (and in a limited way) is willing to take responsibility. Mackenzie, jumping back and forth in time to fill in the backstory as its consequences play out, expertly suggests, through the development of the plot, a gray middle ground, degrees of innocence and guilt, of action and effect.
It’s a dark tale, told in the noir manner, and Mackenzie employs a dark palette and baroque contrasts of light and shadow to underscore the mood and the almost constant presence of sexual tension. From his use of extreme closeups to his eye for the beauty of the landscape (a stunning shot of pink-lavender-rose clouds along with their reflection in the the water of the canal; a scene of dense fog as the barge quietly slides through the water), Mackenzie consistently delivers visual style that is integral to the telling of the story and stunning to look at in its own right. A fine score by David Byrne, carried largely by strings, helps sustain a tense, subtly charged, minor-key sadness.
McGregor (Big Fish, Star Wars-Episode 2) is perfectly cast as Joe, seething with sexuality and a magnetism made up of equal parts understated charm and an ability to read what his women want, whether gentleness or a good spanking. It’s no wonder that a mousy woman like Ella is willing to put her marriage and family at risk when Joe strokes her leg under the dinner table, inviting intimacy for which she is hungry.
Swinton (The Deep End, The War Zone) maintains an underlying dignity in the character of Ella, even as she falls for Joe’s advances and makes the error of projecting unrealistic plans for their future. The barrier that separates her from Joe (and Joe from all his women) is the difference in their understanding of intimacy; the intimacy Joe offers is purely physical, no matter how giving. It doesn’t imply accompanying emotional intimacy and it surely doesn’t extend to commitment. He’s an ambulatory setup for the unhappiness of others.