Young Adam (2003) is an exquisite movie. It's a faithful, and in many ways richer, version of Alexander Trocchi's novel set on the riverways and canals of 1950s Scotland. It's perfectly cast, beautifully acted, and David Byrne's original score is haunting and stands alone as one of the best soundtracks of a 21st century film. All these elements wind tight around the film's story to give you a perfectly preserved tale of angst, wanderlust, and regret.
Staying in the time of Trocchi's original novel, Young Adam opens in the mid-ish 1950s near Glasgow. Young Joe Taylor (played by Ewan McGregor) has been hired on as an extra hand by couple Les and Ella Gault (Peter Mullan and Tilda Swinton) running a barge up and down the canals and riverways of Scotland, hauling coal and other heavy industrial items.
One morning Joe spots something floating in the water—a young woman, dead of an apparent drowning. She's nude except for a thin petticoat. Joe and Les call in their find to the police, the body is hauled away, and aside from a few musings about how she met her end the two men get on with their work and put the incident out of their minds.
Daily life on the barge is grueling and draining, mostly routine with few pleasures except for a pint at a local pub and a game of darts. The same day that he discovers the body, Joe examines Les's wife Ella while she hangs up a load of wash on the clothesline. He's never considered her in any way other than the wife of the boss before, but something about the shock of the morning changes his outlook and he sees Ella for the woman she is, appealing but hardened by life on the river.
Joe starts pursuing Ella and without too much trouble they begin a clandestine affair, stealing moments for themselves when Les is down at the pub or working above them on deck. The deeper he becomes involved with Ella, the more Joe begins to reminisce about his ex-girlfriend Cathie (Emily Mortimer). He flashes back to how he met Cathie on the beach the summer before, and how he recently ran into her again in Glasgow after a long absence.
There are quite a few graphic scenes in the film—sex is not treated as a beautiful act between two lovers but a physical need that's common and coarse. Tilda Swinton's Ella is a tender lover one minute, and a matronly shrew the next. It's her mercurial nature that makes Joe intrigued, humbled, and often annoyed. After their first encounter in the fields Joe asks her, "Are you sorry?" and Ella snaps back, "Lot of good that would do me!"
Joe follows the story of the dead woman from the river in the evening papers. Her death has been ruled a homicide, and as the case creeps towards an inevitable arrest and trial the tension of Joe's secret relationship with Ella twist him (and us) into knots, and we learn that Joe may have more than a passing connection with the woman he pulled out of the water.
Director David Mackenzie (most recently known for his neo-Western thriller Hell and High Water) makes a few improvements upon Trocchi's original novel—his script gives Joe a wry sense of humor and downplays his arrogance. Ella and Les, in the hands of MacKenzie's script and the masterful acting of Tilda Swinton and Peter Mullan, have a warmth and sympathy to their characters that their two-dimensional counterparts lack in the original text.
The pastoral scenery of the back roads and riverways of small town Scotland is married perfectly with David Byrne's score (titled Lead Us Not Into Temptation: Music from the film Young Adam). Byrne's arrangement of cellos, violins and violas with piano and percussion weave through the scenes like a stream of its own. Songs like "Seaside Smokes" evoke the '50s small-combo jazz vibe of the era and the closing track "Great Western Road" features Byrne's vocals which wail and mourn like an ancestral tune caught and carried through the wind along the moors.
Author Trocchi, a rising literary star of the 1950s that relinquished his role as Scottish brother to the Beat Generation in favor of a lifelong heroin addiction, gave Joe a malignant passivity that led nearly every commentator of the novel to draw similarities to Camus' The Stranger. Some of that remains in McGregor's portrayal of Joe in the film—he allows the situation on the barge to run its course and leaves Ella to decide what will become of him and Les. As the trial of the accused murderer of the dead woman looms and Ella becomes increasingly possessive of Joe's time and future, McGregor's Joe retreats further into himself and allows the tides to carry him from one pub to another and one woman to another. At the end of film we know Joe is condemned to live in a permanent present—unable to face his past and unwilling to define his future.
Young Adam is available on DVD