This is not a film for those who dislike the cold. Everything about "Young Adam" oozes chill, in every sense of the word. Cold weather, cold times and cold people. In the crucial moment when Joe (Ewan McGregor) and Ella (Tilda Swinton) first embark upon their wild desperate sex, they do it in the crisp autumn air, by the canal on which Ella’s boat travels. Their pale features frantically moving in the frosty air, their wincing looks show they are clearly thinking with us of the coldness bred in their natures.
Based on the novel by newly-revived Scottish ‘beat’ Alexander Trocchi, director David MacKenzie evokes all the book’s dismal colours. Maybe it’s 60s Scotland that was responsible; maybe it’s the isolation of the canal boat. Whatever the reason, the two protagonists, along with Ella’s cuckolded husband Les (Peter Mullan), are condemned to a life of dreariness, alleviated only by alcohol and sex.
A similar mood to last year’s Morvern Callar emerges – wistful drifting in Scottish greyness from a troubled anti-hero (Joe). But whereas Lynne Ramsay’s film was a triumph of Morvern’s ambiguity and alien charm, Joe is dislikeable from the start. Believing himself a tortured writer, his route to the barge has been prefaced by destroying all his possessions and seriously destabilizing a former girlfriend, Cathie (an eerie Emily Mortimer). The roughness of his skin and tone of his bleak nihilism show the lack of beauty in the image of the rugged male traveller, as opposed to the more genuine mystery of the woman nomad, embodied here by Ella.
But this is very much a film where everyone suffers, whether man or woman. Joe, having walked out on Cathie and started working on the barge, discovers a body in the water. He then has sex with every woman possible (the more married and passive, the better) and is exposed by the end as the coward and drop-out we always suspected. His own realisation of this is a tragic moment, but one to which he reacts with the passive sigh the film makes the audience feel.
Despite outward appearances, this is not an intellectual film. In fact, it champions instincts and simplicity in the same way Ken Loach can at his best. The four main leads are brilliantly restrained in what could in worse hands have been transformed into crass melodrama. If we need a hero, it could be said to be Les. On discovering his wife’s adultery, his stoicism is carried through to the obvious conclusion – that most of life is so ordinary anyway, that whether with or without her, his life will be the same plateau of (dis)comfort. Difficult viewing, yes, but deeply compelling too.