Young Adam

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YOUNG ADAM's [Ewan McGregor's] Last Tango in Glasgow

Apr 22, 2004 (Updated Jul 23, 2004)
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:McKenzie's direction. McGregor, Swinton, Mortimer, Mullan, Bradley. Nuttgens'photography. David Byrne's score. Graphic sex scenes.

Cons:Graphic sex scenes. Plot not tight enough, depends on chance. Or is it fate?

The Bottom Line: In the hands of new Writer/Director David McKenzie, YOUNG ADAM, based on Alexander Trocchi's Scots' Beat Cult Classic, despite its plot flaws, is a faithful, disturbing adaptation: Existential sexuality.


Plot Details: This opinion reveals minor details about the movie's plot.

Shot for much of its length on Scotland's Forth and Clyde Canal, which links Glasgow with Edinburgh, YOUNG ADAM is a brooding, savagely existential and sexual film. The long, narrow barge, which is the film's principal set, takes on a symbolic meaning as it glides narrow channels, through tunnels and locks, moving into the dark, emerging into light, eventually becoming lost in fog. (The boat might well be named, "The Young Adam."} Joe Taylor (Ewen McGregor) is its human counterpart. He is a disaffected university dropout of the 1950's, an undisciplined would-be writer, and what today might be described as "a sexual predator." He has been befriended and employed by Les and Ella Galt (Peter Mullan and Tilda Swinton) to help haul goods on their barge: coal, fuel oil -- what-have-you -- from one town to another.

In 1954, when Scottish Beat Writer Alexander Trocchi was writing his 180 page novella, "Young Adam," his hometown of Glasgow was known as "The Second City of the Empire" (after London); a raw industrial center, soot-ladened, teeming with industry and commerce; home to the Gorbals, one of the great slums of the World. Through the Firth of Clyde flowed raw materials from the Colonies, and Glasgow sent back to British possessions, commonwealths, and other nations around the Earth manufactured goods and processed food stuffs. The barges were a primary means of shunting the materiel about. One of YOUNG ADAM's strengths is how naturalistically it presents a world of work, relatively rare today, in a theatrical film.

And Edinburgh? It was the seat of culture, the home of aristocracy: the royal seat. The saying was, "Edinburgh has the Capitol, but Glasgow has the capital." Barely a mention is made of Edinburgh in YOUNG ADAM, but it is there, symbolically, nonetheless. To go to live in Edinburgh, as one of the characters (Cathy -- Emily Mortimer) wants to, is to have arrived, to have been accepted within the Scottish class system.

[I don't believe the barge, in a pictorial or metaphorical sense, ever actually reaches Edinburgh.]

In the brief northern summer, as the picture begins, we see an idyllic water fowl swimming on the sweeping waters of the Clyde. We descend under the surface to take inventory of detritus on the bottom, and up again to where the corpse of a young woman is floating, clothed only in a slip ("a petticoat," Joe calls it). Chance dictates that Joe and Les haul her out with the aid of a boat hook. We don't know it at the time, but the young woman is Cathy Dimly (Mortimer), who earlier had a long destructive affair with Joe, and who, in retrospect, was the love of his life. Their story is told from the beginning, in parallel, in flashback, and slightly out of order, as the Movie moves through its course.

The Galts are a prosaic couple. Les Galt (Mullan) is a hard working, occasionally hard-drinking man, who at one time had been a deep water sailor, signed on for the far ports of the Empire. Wife Ella (Swinton) toils, like a woman of her time and class, to make comfortable the close quarters of the barge. They have a six year-old son, Jim, whom they love very much and, they impart to him the good manners of the era. Joe is attracted to seafarer Les because he has long harbored vague dreams of shipping out to China, and he is well taken care of by Ella, but it is his nature (like Trocchi, his creator) that he becomes bored and dissatisfied. He soon has entered into an affair with the sexually starved Ella, which is intensified when little Jim goes off to boarding school. They carry on until they are discovered; whereupon, Les takes a hike, pointing out to Joe that the barge has always belonged to Ella, anyway. Joe becomes not only Ella's lover but her employee. It is not long before, Joe is having another sexual encounter, now with Ella's newly widowed sister, the Gin-swilling Gwen (Theresa Bradley). Later yet, he takes to bed Connie (Pauline Turner), the wife of another benefactor, the night-working Bill (Stuart McQuarrie).

If all the sexual affairs were not enough to provide glue to hold the characters of YOUNG ADAM together, the actual technical plot revolves around Cathy's death, and the arrest of Dan Gordon (Ewan Stewart), an unlucky married man, who had been attempting to have an affair with her. Joe Taylor has reason to know, as we come to discover, the true circumstances of Cathy's demise.

Meanwhile, Joe crashes on, fueled by memory, regret, guilt, and increasingly by whisky. There must be at least half a dozen graphic sex scenes in YOUNG ADAM. All of them add to our understanding of either the characters or the story, and each episode is done with considerable frankness and observed detail. At least two are what used to be called "wall jobs," when I was in the U.S. Army, stationed in the British Isles.

"Wall jobs," huh?

Yes, bizarre as it may seem to American audiences and critics of YOUNG ADAM, working class, indeed middle class, British women in that time, partly because of close living conditions, often preferred intercourse standing up, outside (in all weather -- brrr), or if possible, in the relative shelter of a hallway, close, or fence. Very different from the stereotype we have of aloof British damsels. Since condoms were seldom available, and because men, in their insufferable, subconscious drive to populate the World, often found them a bother anyway, the girls persuaded themselves that if the man's semen ran down their thighs afterward, they would not get pregnant: "The Gravity Birth Control Method." Nonsense, of course, and as Gwen says to Joe, in an alley, topping off a long evening at the pub: "Look what a mess you've made of me!"

[This factor also figures in the plot.]

In alleys, in the cabin of the barge, on piers, in row boats, Joe Taylor lives up to the title of Young Adam. In the most spectacular and disturbing of the encounters, a flashback, Cathy returns to their flat after a long day at the office, to find that Joe has not written a page of his projected masterpiece. She chides him. Frustrated (and perhaps as his part in their relationship), when she begins to change her clothes, he throws a large bowl of custard he has made all over her, pushes her to the floor, squirts her liberally with catsup, showers her with sugar, and after whipping her with a riding crop, takes her from behind, which leaves her visibly orgasmic.

It is quite a scene.

Now, you might think from my descriptions that YOUNG ADAM is simply salacious pornography, and certainly there is full frontal (and back) nudity by the principals, both male and female, but it is not gratuitous. Nor, despite the floating corpse and a spectacular trial, is the film really a murder mystery. It has elements of both genres, but in fact, YOUNG ADAM is a morality play. Nothing could be clearer than the misery, the depression, and lack of positive emotion in Joe's life.

Ewen McGregor, under the direction of David McKenzie, gives the best performance of his career. Tilda Swinton as Ella, though born in London, could not be more Scots and toughly sympathetic. (The Glaswegian dialect is difficult, at times, even for someone who has heard a bit of it, but the story is told as much in the cinematography and in the silences, as by words.) The tragic figure Cathy, as played by Emily Morton (LOVELY AND AMAZING, 2001), is both appealing, and presents a warning. Peter Mullan's Les Galt and the rest of the cast give perfect support.

[Watch and listen to Les sing the old sea chantey, "O You Rio," strumming his beloved guitar.]

All of this is staged before the dark green scenery of Scotland, the misty sunlight across the sky and water, the firelit interiors, the damp and glistening nightscapes, as caught by the cameras of Giles Nuttgens (DEEP END, 2001). The editing of Colin Monie (THE MAGDALENE SISTERS, 2002) is almost seamless in its 93 minutes, and the moody score by Scottish-born former Talking Head, David Byrne, is effective.

And yet, in the end, YOUNG ADAM disappoints. It either needs even more plot, or a lot less. The picture is LAST TANGO IN PARIS (Bertolucci, 1973) welded to *THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE (Garnett/Rafelson, 1946/1973, either one), with a touch of Jean Vigo's L'ATLANTIQUE (1934) and Zola's LA BETE HUMAINE (Renoir, 1938). I would hazard that Writer McKenzie's YOUNG ADAM needs a little less reverence for Alexander Trocchi, and more of THE POSTMAN . . . .

Trocchi, a Beat cult figure, is known mostly for Young Adam, the basis of this film; and also for his memoir, The Book of Cain. He was a second generation Scot, born into the well-off family of an Italian orchestra leader, in 1925. He had a good education, but he rejected conventional Scottish values, and after writing Young Adam, ended up a heroin addict; running through a score of Beat celebrity friends on both sides of the Atlantic; pimping his wife and girlfriends for dope: "down and out in London and Paris," not to mention New York and Canada. He died, short of sixty, from pneumonia, a complication of his addictions. Some of his predictive despair permeates YOUNG ADAM, and robs it of meaningful energy in spite of, perhaps because of, the sex.

Still, the picture heralds another promising director, to join the Scots urban kitchen sink slice of life school: Danny Boyle (TRAINSPOTTING, 1995), Lynne Ramsay (MORVERN CALLAR, 2002), and the transplanted old master, Ken Loach (SWEET SIXTEEN, 2003).

Glasgow, of course, now calls itself "The Cultural Capital of Europe," and many of the slums have been redeveloped, the old Jacobite and Georgian architecture refurbished. McKenzie had to build his own barge to navigate the stretches of canal available. The rest has been gentrified.

Approach YOUNG ADAM, then, as a period piece, with both understanding and caution.

I recommend it with those caveats.

----------

Rated NC-17. (It is said, upon the insistence of Ewen McGregor.)

------------------

If you would like to read a story by Macresarf1 in the mood of YOUNG ADAM, go to the following:

"YOUNG ADAM and After" --

http://www.epinions.com/content_4014710916


For a Macresarf1's review of a film similar in mood and locale, click on the link below:

SWEET SIXTEEN --

http://www.epinions.com/content_103536823940

-------------------------

*THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE --

http://www.epinions.com/content_7887752836


Recommend this product? Yes


Suitability For Children: Not suitable for Children of any age

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