Sex and deceit satiate brooding ‘Young Adam’

    With its raunchy sex, unlikable characters and morally ambiguous atmosphere, the 1950’s Glasgow, Scotland, depicted in “Young Adam” in no way resembles Eden. The title of the film ironically implies an ideallistically pure environment, yet writer/director David Mackenzie’s bleak outlook only has room for deception, betrayal, cold indifference and a faux set of ethics that immediately connect sex with crime. Mackenzie’s picture is anything but pleasant. But the unsettling snapshot of unspectacular blue-collar life and its naked, flawed characters are fascinating in a strange, uncomfortable way.

    In the first scene of the grim picture, Joe (Ewan McGregor) and Les (Peter Mullan) fish the body of an almost naked woman out of the Clyde River. Her death is a mystery, until her connection to Joe slowly begins to unravel. Joe is a Scottish drifter who finds shelter and work on a barge owned by the ordinary Les and his reticent wife Ella (Tilda Swinton). Joe soon woos Ella with a blunt stare and the two take part in a dirty love affair. Interestingly, Mackenzie strips their graphic sex scenes of ardor or affection, perhaps to emphasize the pair’s hapless lives.

    Additionally, McGregor and Swinton strip down their characters — both on physical and emotional level. McGregor sheds all of the glamorous charm that he flaunted in “Moulin Rouge” and “Big Fish” and becomes a cold, indifferent man who is reclusive about his feelings and at odds with his conscience. He obsessively watches couples rumpling sheets, beds numerous women, and smokes enough cigarettes to rival Colin Farrell. Swinton delicately taps into the newly awakened passion of a bored, hard-working wife and mother, and she gives some of her dialogues with McGregor a delicious slice of wit and humor.

    While the two lovers engage in their adulterous lust, Joe recalls his stormy relationship with a former dutiful and abused girlfriend, Cathie (Emily Mortimer). He fondly remembers their spontaneous romps on the dirt and rocks and in a jerky boat, as well as their disastrous parting. Mortimer and McGregor infuse the relationship with the necessary level of uncontrolled desire that explains Joe’s inability to fully part with her. Mortimer nicely adopts a well-balanced mixture of strength and vulnerability, and she brilliantly handles a moment in which Joe subjects Cathie to sadomasochistic humiliation that involves custard and some condiments.

    Former Talking Head David Byrne’s apprehensive musical score contributes an unnerving quality to the tense picture and enhances the characters’ conflicting thoughts. The film contains sparse dialogue, so almost all character analysis has to come from the actors and the setting. The coal-gray city in which even the few lush green trees quickly become shadowed by dust suggests an environment in which principles have little meaning, and where sin has a place to breed.

    The characters come through as damaged individuals, but it is impossible to feel pity for any of them because none of them are decent or blameless. The rough world of the film is difficult to digest because of its grittiness and the lack of distinction between good and bad, or guilty and innocent. There are times when the explicit sex scenes are overbearing, and the hopelessness of the plot becomes a bit tiresome, particularly when it reaches the rather unclear, inconclusive ending. However, the emotional honest with which the actors infuse their characters gives the film a rare potency.

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