A Different Beat

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Review of ’Young Adam‘, director David MacKenzie

Young Adam follows the adventures of an amoral young Scot through 1950s Glasgow. This grey, fog-ridden film shows Adam‘s gradual slide into a private hell. We initially meet him fishing the corpse of a young woman out of the Clyde with his boatmate, Les (Peter Mullan). The corpse wearing only a nightdress; naturally, the police soon construct a story around an alleged affair and brutal murder that scandalises Glasgow. As becomes clear, Adam (played with conviction by Ewan McGregor) knows far more about her death than he is prepared to let on.
Behind that simple plot lies a complex and morally involved story that Alexander Trocchi penned as an indictment of the hypocrisy of postwar Scotland. For all the puritan howls of outrage at the alleged immorality on display in the murder trial, Glasgow is a city obsessed with sex. Adam himself engages in a series of loveless sexual encounters, and the prurient crowds cram into the courtroom, to groan in titillated disgust.

It‘s hard not to see something of Trocchi in Adam - as a struggling would-be writer, Adam attempts to create ’something different‘, while Trocchi himself spent years in obscurity, though he was described by William Burroughs as a ’critical and pivotal figure‘ in literature and became involved with the political art movement the Situationist International in the 1960s. He became seriously addicted to heroin, taking to writing porn and eventually pimping his wife to pay for his habit. Doubtless Adam‘s attempts to live a life without a conventional - or perhaps any - morality contain something of Trocchi‘s own demons. Trocchi died of pneumonia in 1984, later to be honored by Irvine Welsh (among others) as a huge influence.

Critical to the dramatic tension of Young Adam is the impossibility of personal escape from social situations. Adam wishes to be a writer, then he decides to move to China, finally, he becomes a bargehand and - as much, it might seem, out of boredom as anything - starts an affair with Ella, Les‘s wife. There is a touch of black comedy about Adam‘s inevitable liaisons - Ella abandons him after he has sex with her supposedly bereaved sister - though this rapidly disappears as, in a series of flashbacks shot in bright, contrasting sunlight, Adam‘s relationship with Cathie (Emily Mortimer), the drowned woman, becomes clear. For all Adam‘s pretence at existential freedom, he is far more tied to convention and the consequences of his actions than any of the women he cynically ’makes love‘ to: in a minor but neat twist, Ella turns out to own the boat Adam assumed was Les‘s, and so rapidly ditches her husband - before chucking Adam himself.

The dull water, with rain dripping from overhanging branches above the canal, or the Clyde shrouded in mist, acts as a constant backdrop to the story - one often beautifully filmed. Adam‘s self-inflicted wounds and his attempts at escape revolve around the canals and the river. As should be clear, Young Adam does not make for cheerful viewing: the ending is shocking and the tone of moral ambiguity is maintained throughout - not least in the question of Adam‘s guilt or innocence, or even in the futility of either category. Nonetheless, it is highly recommended as an intensely dramatic portrayal of sham morality and its sickening consequences.