A life of loneliness and nihilism is hell, but in Young Adam
it at least is a stylish hell. The upside to such a life-one led by young, quasi-anonymous Scottish gadabout Joe (Ewan McGregor)-is that every object seems to burn with a subtle fetishism. The dreary canals of Glasgow with their rippling waterways, creeping darkness, and the just barely hidden beauty of every Scottishlass that hangs round the docks are pervasive with barely muffled sexuality. In view of the lethargy in Joe’s nihilism he seems to taint everything he does with grey romanticism. To this end he screws every woman in sight and yearningly sucks down hundreds of cigarettes all steeped in in the navy-dulled hues of the Scottish canal system. Even the nonchalant 1950s setting feels subtly textured and rife with minor sexual
details. As it should, I suppose, in a tale extrapolated from the classic noir The Postman Always Rings Twice
. No Venetian blinds or femme fatales here though; Joe haplessly seems drawn to lonely women in need of a good romp in the hay, and because most of them are permanently attached to their husbands Joe finds little threat of masculine usurpance in the constant beddings.
Elle (Tilda Swinton) for instance, is literally adrift in the tedious combination of barge-life and married-life, and her apparently impotent husband Les (Peter Mullan) has the unknowing bad luck of hiring sexual firebird Joe as a helper on their claustrophobic barge. Later we can chalk up several other similar and unusually attractive women to Joe’s list of hollow sexual conquests, chief among them a fling from the past, Cathie (Emily Mortimer), who almost…almost inspires some sort of human emotion in the introverted romantic that McGregor handsomely plays so well. (Hey, at least his slow-burning noir non-entity is a change from his previous entries as dandy romantics in Down With Love
and Moulin Rouge!
.) David Mckenzie’s script, which he not only adapted from Alexander Trocchi’s novel but also directs, is short on dialog and long on atmosphere. Unlike The Postman Always Rings Twice
our sleazy hero has no trouble seducing his Scottish ladies and much of Young Adam
's narrative tension dissipates after Swinton goes to bed with him in the first fifteen minutes. A similar disappointment erupts when the mystery of a floating corpse is used as a picture into Joe’s deplorable
oscillation between borderline humanity and anonymous nihilism rather than kicking up the dreary tension inherent in the film’s content.
At least the atmosphere comes in droves, and the rampant sexual activity of the cast cannot be complained about when they are as attractive as Swinton, McGregor, and Mortimer. There certainly are things churning lugubriously beneath the murky surface of Young Adam
; a handful of primal scenes and the stark contrast between Swinton’s gangly, domesticated beauty and Mortimer’s more youthful and kinky appeal speaks to lightly touched upon Freudian gestations in Joe’s melancholy drifting. Nothing is much developed, and the film always feels just too slow burning for its own good. By the third or fourth fling Joe has one begins to wish someone-anyone- would take another fatal dive in the canal to give the bountiful atmosphere some legitimate fatal justification. Still, Mckenzie has a keen visual sense. He somehow completely and effectively stylizes Young Adam
without it ever being overt; a quick glance at the film and it looks like a kitchen sink drama. A closer eye notices that the attention to dulled color and subtle lower-class texture of that genre is slyly transposed to noir styling. More effort is put into the film’s look than anything else and its imagery makes Young Adam
more of a laidback visual pleasure than a stimulating, or thrilling character study.