Young Adam

UK/France 2002

Film still for Young Adam

Reviewed by Philip Kemp


Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists.

Scotland, the 50s. Joe Taylor (Ewan McGregor), a young drifter, works with Les (Peter Mullan) and Ella Gault (Tilda Swinton) on their coal barge plying the canals between Glasgow and Edinburgh. One day Joe and Les find a young woman's near-naked body floating in the sea and notify the police. Joe and Ella are physically attracted, and one night while Les is at the pub they have sex.

In flashback, Joe meets a girl called Cathie Dimley (Emily Mortimer) and moves in with her. After breaking up, they meet by chance on the dockside. They have sex under a truck, but when she suggests they get married, Joe pushes her away and she falls into the harbour. Joe panics and runs off, later disposing of her clothes.

The Gaults' young son Jim (Jack McElhone)falls overboard; Joe rescues him. He becomes increasingly involved with Ella. Les discovers the affair and, as Ella owns the barge, sullenly leaves. It's reported that Cathie (whose body Joe and Les retrieved) had been seeing a married man, Daniel Gordon, now arrested for her murder.

Ella suggests she and Joe should settle down together. Her sister Gwen (Therese Bradley), recently widowed, comes to visit. Joe and Gwen have sex on a street corner. When Ella senses this, Joe leaves and finds lodgings, where he starts an affair with his landlord's wife. He attends the trial and sees Daniel condemned to death before trudging away along the quayside.


Portraying an emotionally amputated protagonist without either soliciting sympathy or alienating your audience is no mean trick. It defeated Visconti in his over-literal adaptation of Camus' L'tranger (Lo straniero, 1967), a novel with which Alexander Trocchi's Young Adam has often been compared. Other directors have been more successful with less head-on tactics; in Leo the Last (1969) John Boorman undermined his exiled, passive-aggressive aristo with subversive humour, and the Coen Brothers brought a cool monochrome elegance and glittering irony to bear on The Man Who Wasn't There. David Mackenzie, in his second feature as writer-director, takes his own route but still hits the target.

Trocchi's 1954 cult novel is written in the first person, but Mackenzie rejects the obvious solution of giving his anti-hero, Joe Taylor, a doomy noirish voiceover. Instead Joe's affectless state of mind is expressed through the gritty visual texture and cold, grey-blue palette, flat, detached dialogue and above all Ewan McGregor's performance. Paring away the streetwise perkiness of his earlier roles, he evinces a hungry, raw dissatisfaction, his mouth skewed in a grimace of anticipated distaste.

Mackenzie's debut feature, The Last Great Wilderness, had atmosphere to spare but lacked focus, veering wildly ? if divertingly from road movie to black comedy to Polanskian Grand Guignol, all leavened with a hint of The Wicker Man. Young Adam, with the spine of Trocchi's terse novel to keep it on course, establishes its tone with far more assurance, and sticks to it. The script deviates very little from the original, least of all in its key narrative obliquity: Joe's connection with the girl whose corpse he drags from the water when working on a barge is withheld from us until halfway through. By the time we find out, it's evident that any recourse to Dostoevskian redemption-through-guilt is beyond Joe's moral compass.

The script includes only one significant deviation from the novel, in which Joe rescues his employers' young son from drowning. It's hard to see why this was inserted, unless to soften Joe's character which would be odd, since there are no other attempts to ingratiate him. Otherwise Mackenzie handles his material with a light touch and intimate attention to physical detail: the sense of grimy, sweaty flesh, especially in the sex scenes on the barge, is startlingly vivid. In a moment of supreme post-coital disaffection, Joe watches expressionless as a fat black fly takes a leisurely stroll around Ella's nipple.

Mackenzie draws edgy, exact performances from Tilda Swinton and Peter Mullan, while Emily Mortimer makes the most of an underwritten role as Joe's put-upon girlfriend. There's a relishably slatternly cameo from Therese Bradley as Ella's sister Gwen, complete with black-rooted hennaed hair, blood-gash lipstick and chillingly reductive attitude to sex ("Drink up. We've got business to attend to").

Mackenzie resists jazzing up his story with any spurious sense of urgency or passion. Barring one brief, bizarre scene of erotic violence involving custard and spanking with a wooden slat Young Adam moves with the torpid, inexorable pace of the coal barge itself, abetted by David Byrne's moody score. Such assured film-making augurs well for Mackenzie's next project, an adaptation of Patrick McGrath's gothic tour de force, Asylum.


David Mackenzie
Jeremy Thomas
David Mackenzie
Based on the novel by
Alexander Trocchi
Director of Photography
Giles Nuttgens
Colin Monie
Production Designer
Laurence Dorman
David Byrne
Last Updated: 20 Dec 2011