By Elaine Wolff
When we first lay eyes on the charismatic young Joe Taylor (McGregor), working in close quarters on a coal barge with a dour family of three, it's already apparent that he and the skipper's wife, Ella (Swinton), will soon be swabbing belowdecks together. Joe is the kind of man who can't keep it in his pants, particularly around widows, frustrated wives, and emotionally vulnerable women; they are a bounty crop that he harvests at first sight. Joe is an unstable element, causing damage and disruption wherever he goes - to the rough-edged but decent bargeman, Les (Mullan), to Les and Ella's son James.
The story unfolds like an origami crane under hazy skies, along the canals that run between Glasgow and Edinburgh, Scotland - a setting alternately bucolic and decrepit. Through a series of fluid flashbacks we realize that Joe has had a Chappaquiddick moment, and he lacks the moral fortitude to do more than feint at coming clean, although his paralysis may lead to an innocent man's death. Bereft of any moral compass other than his own appetite, he watches with a sort of disconnected surprise as people unravel with his willing, if not quite premeditated, participation. He imagines himself, briefly, as a better man through his affair with Ella, but he is soon off the wagon again. The name of Ella's boat is Atlantic Eve, but Adam cannot get back into paradise because the serpent is embedded in his soul.
Alexander Trocchi's novel, on which the film is based, was a critique of the hypocritical mores of 1950s-era Scotland in much the same way that American Beat writers took a scalpel to their parents' bourgeois lives. Young Adam's director, David McKenzie, argues that Joe is not guilty. He is, rather, a moral casualty of a repressed, and economically oppressive, society, an emotional orphan who might have penned Leonard Cohen's "Like a Bird on a Wire": "Like a baby stillborn, like a beast with his horn, I have torn everyone who reached out for me."
McGregor is both menacing and pathetic, outshown nonetheless by the substantive grit and gentleness of Mr. Mullan (who wrote, directed, and acted in 2002's The Magdalene Sisters). The camera work deftly conveys Joe's limited sense of possiblity, and the delicate equilibrium of life on a boat: Creature comforts are few and happiness is created or destroyed by relationships alone. Among the many pleasures of this dark film is David Byrne's apt soundtrack (think "The Accident" from Look Into the Eyeball), which creates a modern dirge for this play on the death of moral certitude. •
By Elaine Wolff