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Barging Ahead: Ewan McGregor and Tilda Swinton get passionate in 'Young Adam.'

Floating World

'Young Adam' takes a sexy barge holiday with Tilda Swinton and Ewan McGregor

By Richard von Busack

ONE WEBPAGE on the writer Alexander Trocchi deems him "a controversial figure described variously as a junkie, pimp, outsider, Scottish beat, visionary, philosopher, underground organizer and antique book dealer." Those antique book dealers are rough trade, indeed.

The title of Trocchi's Angry Young Man novel Young Adam--adapted for the screen by director/writer David Mackenzie--is somewhat oblique to non-Anglicans. It refers to the Book of Common Prayer's baptism rite: "Oh, merciful God, grant that the old Adam in this Child may be buried, that the new man be raised up in him"--and the "old Adam" has been a euphemism for original sin in English literature ever since.

In Young Adam, Ewan McGregor plays the alienated hero, Joe. He's a thwarted writer, able neither to create nor to take his place in the smothering world of bourgeoisie Scotland in the late 1950s. He can't roam free. The women keep hooking him up. They tempt this Adam, and he eats.

For most of the film, Joe pursues a passionate affair with his boss's woman, Ella (Tilda Swinton). Joe, Joe's supervisor Les (Peter Millan), Ella and her young son live and work on a barge plying the canals. The affair is perilous--hot but secret. Only a cardboardlike wall separates the cabins aboard the boat. In flashback, we learn how Joe was present at the drowning of his lover Cathie (Emily Mortimer) in the Clyde River in Glasgow. Later, Joe stands by as an innocent man stands trial for the supposed murder.

Watching this film, one gets the sense of a once-arresting book that couldn't get arrested today. Particularly dated is the film's certitude that one woman takes the place of another, without a ripple, and that the entire sex is nothing but chains on a man's freedom. Of all the aspects that have aged the writing of the Beat generation fastest, it's the movement's casual sexism.

Of course, a figure representing Impassive, All-Accepting Womanhood tends to get a few more angles when Swinton plays her. Swinton, as always, is worth seeing; she's mysteriously sour, catlike--in one scene sleeping so heavily that she doesn't stir when a fly crawls on her nipple. Could that be a reference to Fly, Yoko Ono's foray into filmmaking? Or perhaps it's just a too-dandy juxtaposition of the nurturing breast with impending death: embrace the one, succumb to the other.

However, something in Swinton always rises above the part. I was moved by her in the scene where she thinks of herself as a low, cheating woman, weeping because she can't resist, weeping because she wants it so badly.

So I was baffled by the sequence when Ella's sister, Gwen, turns up. As played by Therese Bradley, with red-dyed hair and plucked eyebrows, she looks like a woman who would set off every fire alarm in Scotland. (David Byrne, who did the soundtrack, introduces her with a loungey exotica theme.) On the page, it might have made sense--one thing leading to another. But how can Swinton--with her glittering, bitter eyes--be suddenly unshrewd enough to let her flashy sister and her boyfriend go off together?

Mackenzie can't help going nostalgic; what might have been gritty once now looks like postcards. Young Adam is like the barge holiday that lucky tourists can afford. The barge's name, Atlantic Eve, like the scrawly tattoos on Les' backside and like the scenes of Joe walking against the direction of the moving boat, giving the illusion of a man pacing busily but going nowhere, seems to point toward the monarch of barge movies, Jean Vigo's 1934 L'Atalante. But watching Young Adam, you miss Vigo's silvery fog, Michel Simon's crude but ethereal clowning.

What Ella wants--a bungalow in an inexpensive suburb--is so dull-sounding after this green, floating life; it's what those smothering women always want in those beatnik novels. They practically carry balls and chains ready for the ankles of the heroes. The movie starts off wrong-footed, too. In the early scenes, Mackenzie goes coal-movie realistic, with a smudged body discovered at a forlorn coal dock, but he overdoes the dourness. (Not even the local children are interested in seeing the corpse.) How could this lack of general interest in a cadaver turn into a sensational murder trial?

I'd have loved some more blasé brute in the lead--a young Sean Connery perhaps. Instead, we get the the least Celtic of screen Scotsmen. McGregor has a beautiful body and an affecting look of hurt, but he doesn't have the amoral prettiness of a Chet Baker; he looks too innocent for the part of this man who embodies the pathology and guilt of an artist and who cuts a swath through his fellow men and women.

If this kind of story survives at all, it's because this situation comes up again and again. Joe doesn't have an art that justifies his casual cruelty, his passiveness. All he can do is keep betraying, again and again, until he wanders off to his own oblivion.

Young Adam (Unrated; 98 min.), directed and written by David Mackenzie, based on the novel by Alexander Trocchi, photographed by Giles Nuttgen and starring Ewan McGregor and Tilda Swinton, opens Friday.

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From the April 28-May 4, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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