There is no one actually named Adam in YOUNG ADAM, based on the novel by 50s Brit Beat Alexander Trocchi. Its use is open to interpretations, biblical and other. Make of it what you will, but be prepared for a harsh, yet mesmerizing dissection of the way morality is often lived rather than how it is always idealized.
It all begins with the dead body of a young woman floating languidly in the River Clyde between Glasgow and Edinburgh. Clad only in a filmy slip, she is pulled ashore by two bargemen waiting for a load of coal. Les (Peter Mullan), the older one pulls a hard-nosed attitude, while the younger one, Joe (Ewan McGregor), is tender, pulling the slip down to cover her nakedness, gently touching her shoulder, and then insisting on covering the body with a blanket. There is, of course, much more here than meets the eye, and that it true of the film as a whole. Writer/director David MacKenzie exquisitely manipulates audience expectations with subtle shifts of visual idioms and by unfolding the story in select snippets that twist expectation bit by bit until up is down and black is white.
The dead girl becomes a backdrop to the rest of the story as we learn snippets about the progress of the investigation as the barge carrying Joe, Les and Les haggard, overworked wife, Ella (Tilda Swinton) and his young son drop into the town along the rivers and canals. Why Joe has been so deeply affected by the corpse is something that will be made clear later. In the meantime, he embarks on an affair with Ella that seems like the natural outcome of the close quarters they all keep. Especially so as the film is told from Joes point of view, spying through a crack in the wall as Les fails in bed with Ella, or watching Ella unselfconsciously scratch her underarm at the supper table, his gaze moving up to her neck where it’s met by Ellas forthright stare. Swintons Ella is a delicious cipher. Does she know Joes intentions? Probably. Is she encouraging them by staring right back at him or is she trying to shame him? When the camera follows Joes hand beneath that supper table, slowly, deliberately making its way up Ellas thigh, why does she pause so long before stopping the action by rising from the table? After their first fling, Joe tender, Ella impassive until the clinch, Joe asks her if shes sorry, to which she tartly replies that it wouldnt do her any good to be. Then later, she engages in a series of dangerous sex games with Joe that usually involves Les being mere inches away.
Each character has layer upon layer, some, as in real life, infuriatingly contradictory. MacKenzie uses a gradual shifting of film exposures to signal that another layer has been peeled away. He goes from a moody, oversaturated gloom to a stark, gritty overexposure that all but bleaches out the color from the screen the way innocence and illusion have been stripped away from our perceptions. And while there is a great deal of sex on screen as Joe relives in flashback the unsettling life with his ex-girlfriend on shore while exploring the sensual delights of the present, this is squarely set in the an anti-eroticsm underscored by the grim setting of postwar Britain. Its a grey and monotonous world of rationing and working class doldrums, where sexual coupling becomes nothing more than a desperate attempt to stave off the mind-numbing boredom of cramped quarters, even on shore, and a future that promises to be as dreary as the present.
MacKenzie also uses a carefully neutral point of view at each stage of the films journey. McGregor, in perfect tune with the those intentions, is a blank slate onto which the audience can project motivations and emotions, only to have them confounded with wrenching finality. Beneath a surface that brims with sensitivity and good cheer, roil passions and secrets that make this a sophisticated, challenging performance at once direct and oblique.
YOUNG ADAM is a film that will stay with you for its imagery and strange twists and turns. It will also do something much more insidious, it will make you wonder about the next smiling face you meet, the next headline you read, and all those little things that you take at face value without a second thought.