Before he became the young Obi-Wan Kenobi, the charming Scottish actor Ewan McGregor gave a series of commando performances in edgy films like Trainspotting, Velvet Goldmine and The Pillow Book. Back then his only light saber was the one God gave him. But soon he began to make middling thrillers (Nightwatch), imaginative spoofs (Moulin Rouge) and the Star Wars prequels, in which he sounds eerily like Alec Guinness, whose character he plays as a younger man.
In the midst of this stardom, McGregor has now returned temporarily to his roots, both cultural and artistic: In David Mackenzie's erotic drama Young Adam, he renews his membership as a fearless art-film actor.
He plays Joe, a guy who, as he puts it, "shed my old skin and merged into the fog." Joe was a struggling (i.e. failed) experimental novelist in his former life, but now he hauls coal on a barge along the waterways of coastal Scotland, circa 1950s. It's sooty work, and at the end of each day, he and his older colleague, Les (Peter Mullan), wash each other's backs with water from a basin filled by Les' dour and sturdy wife, Ella (Tilda Swinton), who keeps the home fires burning and looks after their little boy. At night, they all retire to the ship's living quarters below deck, where they silently take a meal around a cramped table and then go to sleep.
This is the placid surface of life on board. But things change in the opening moments of Young Adam when Joe sees a woman's body floating on the river. He tries to fish her out with a hook, but he's useless with the tool. So Les does the job and calls the authorities.
Eventually we learn that Joe knew this woman, and his silence becomes the heart of the piece and of the murder trial that ensues. Based on a novel by Alexander Trocchi, and adapted by director Mackenzie, Young Adam is a morality tale set in an amoral world where the people who live honest lives are the ones who get figuratively screwed the most. The literal screwing is reserved for the duplicitous others, for we know from the start that Joe is a rake: As the police haul off the dead body, and the woman's pale leg drops out from beneath the blanket, Joe casts a desirous glance in its direction, and a disgusted Ella sees him do it.
Naturally, then, before long, Joe and Ella are shagging each other's brains out. (Seems her disgust was more jealousy than moral outrage.) Joe also has liaisons with Cathie (Emily Mortimer), his somewhat recent ex-girlfriend, although eventually we learn that these are flashbacks to their crumbled and crumbling relationship (in that order -- Mackenzie shuffles the chronology of his storytelling without giving you, for a good while, even a hint that he's doing so). When Les discovers the affair, we discover something about his marriage: Ella owns the barge. So Les leaves, and Ella settles into a new domestic bliss with a screwed-up guy who wants nothing to do with marriage and a kid.
This all sounds like a domestic soap opera done up with artsy trappings -- it abounds in the three S's of the art film: silence, stasis, symbolism -- but Mackenzie does his best to elevate it. He photographs Young Adam in the damp overcast grayness of a perpetually cloudy Scottish sky, and his copious scenes of sex are cold, hard, furtive, joyless, darkly lit and dirty (Joe and Cathie do it once in the mud and another time on the floor after he angrily soils her with a pot of homemade pudding, then beats her and rapes her).
Ultimately, though, the grinding dispassionate fornication between these unhappy people rarely achieves the disturbing brutality of movies like Crash, Secretary or even McGregor's own The Pillow Book (directed by Peter Greenaway). In the end, Young Adam becomes a transparent, albeit serious, exercise in eroticism and moralizing, with a demi-thriller plot imposed on its opaque characters. Joe, Ella, Les and Cathie have no background, and so their present tense lacks a context to give their choices power and meaning. On the other hand, Mackenzie does a capable job of peeling away the layers of what little we do learn, and as the drama unfolds, Joe especially become more heinous with each new revelation.
In the acting department, Young Adam is a two-man show. I've never liked Tilda Swinton (Orlando, The Deep End), the tense and turgid British doyenne of "serious" cinema. Here, as always, she has hollow doe eyes, pursed lips and a grudging smile that looks like she's working too hard. (Her character wears her tedious hard work aboard the barge like a scarlet yoke.) Fortunately, McGregor is an actor whose face employs myriad effective subtitles, even when he isn't doing much. So you may leave Young Adam wishing that it had been a more of a straightforward character study of Joe, stripped of the trappings to get at more of its psychological heart and bone.