With eight features to his credit, Britain’s David Mackenzie (Asylum, Hallam Foe) is somehow still below the radar of popular discourse, which may change with two of his recent works having shown at the 20th annual Philadelphia Film Festival, one of which – Perfect Sense – will be distributed theatrically in January. In his 2004 treatment of author Alexander Trocci’s Young Adam, Mackenzie masterfully exploits the sensuality of cinema, devises drama through structure, and accesses the disclosive potential of sexuality in an ongoing investigation of human impulse.
A rippling skin of water fills the first frames of Young Adam and cuts to a solitary swan floating in the chop. The camera holds this icon for but a moment before delving beneath the water, revealing its dark rugged legs aflutter in the translucent blue/green. We sink lower to riverbed debris. In its rise back to the surface, the camera closes in on the silhouette of a woman’s body, lifeless, non-descript, floating up to the ripples. Like the opening sequence of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet – which, after a montage of idyllic and then suddenly violent suburbia, burrows beneath the grass to reveal writhing insects – the murky underbelly will be Young Adam’s stage.
Scotland, after the war. Joe Taylor (Ewan McGregor) works on an old fuel barge with Leslie (Peter Mullan) and Ella Gault (Tilda Swinton) and their young son Jim (Jack McElhone), carting fuel cargo up and down the rivers and canals between Glasgow and Edinburgh. Les and Joe discover the unknown woman’s body floating in the river and fish her out. This grim catalyst precipitates a degradation of morality for the length of the film that slips between time frames of Joe’s past with a woman named Cathie Dimley (Emily Mortimer) and his present on the barge, as subtly as it lists between the tone of a dream and bleak reality. Eventually a wending portrait draws the span of time and souls together.
From the start, director/writer Mackenzie ensconces a dour and dense mood that is somehow electric. He paints a portrait of constriction. The canals are scarcely wider than the barge that is used to traverse them, and the tunnels are even tighter. The bowels of the barge haven’t a single opportunity for privacy; small cabinet-sized quarters sectioned off by thin walls or curtains, a ceiling just tall enough for someone to stand, a tight and steep staircase, dark. The outdoors, overcast. A cool, muted palate and the pervasive cold physically accentuate a sense of contraction, of shrinking space, ambition, expectation, and the massing of disappointment. The inside of the barge is first shown warmly, with the faintest suggestion of isolation as form of freedom. That irony soon collapses. The slow crawl of barge life, emblematized by the camera’s glide, weighs everything like the riverbed debris. A flashback expresses Joe’s stifled creativity as a writer. Even the structural non-linearity of Young Adam confines the viewer to an unpredictable clarification of the dramatic elements.
We learn that Joe is adrift, at times like the floating corpse; silent yet teeming with a history concealed. He drifts, and deposits, and when he perceives Amontillado’s cask being mortared around him by complacency, stagnation, or expectation, he drifts once more, always a trail of eviscerated souls behind him. He purports to be the architect of his waywardness – an objection to commitment, sentimentality and normalcy – but he sometimes seems the victim of its inherency. A shot of Joe walking from bow to stern as viewed from above gives the impression that he is standing still as the barge moves beneath him.
Though much the observer, Joe learns best through touch. “I was struck by the fact that sight is hypnotized by the surfaces of things; more than that, it can only know surfaces at a distance, meager depths at close range. But the wetness of water felt on the hand and on the wrist is more intimate and more convincing than its colour or even than any flat expanse of sea. The eye, I thought, could never go to the center of things.” (Trocci, p.29) Joe’s mistrust of sight leads him to acts of physical penetration as a primary mode of research and experience. One of the first things we see him do is touch, from which we continually appraise his corporeality, as does he. After plucking the woman’s body from the water, he looks at her intently, draws her translucent petticoat over her buttocks, and, as if wanting to leave a trace of himself, places his palm gently on the pallid skin between her shoulder blades (shown in close-up). The film too is obsessed with surfaces; wood, water, gravel, iron, coal, skin, cobblestone, and hypnotizes through clean gliding movements that read like caresses. Presiding over this is the fact that film is bound to a surface (the screen), therefore confinement resounds even in the medium itself.
Though the draft of the narrative is slow, its dramatic movement is a powerful undertow, and wastes no time in the commencing. Ella ties the laundry on the line as Joe, framed by the wide river, watches the body being taken away. Through memory-like incisions that Trocci describes as a “brainwave”, Joe’s hand against the wet skin, a close-up of Ella’s equally corpse-like lips, the dead woman’s leg sliding off the gurney and her heel dragging in the gravel, Mackenzie draws together death and a spark of erotic awareness between Joe and Ella.
That very night, Joe undertakes the first proactive steps in an affair with Ella, right under Les’s nose. At dinner he grazes Ella’s calf with his own, testing her, studying her microscopic reactions. He runs his hand gradually up her thigh and under her panties, testing further until Ella removes his grasp. They remain almost unflinchingly placid above the table, where below, like the swan and the murk, something unclean transpires.
Later that night, Joe breaks away from Les at the pub, knowing Ella will be alone on the barge. Seizing the moment they consummate their curiosity. Thereafter, Ella becomes increasingly driven in their affair. A sense of abandon sparks life and softness in her where there was none. Joe’s abandonment is like a political act, a political philosophy. He’s a libertine. She [Ella] is going on some weird instinct about mortal spirit. So the erotic charge is essentially mutual but is coming from a very different place. A strange sort of eden, like being a child again.” (Tilda Swinton, actress) Hers is antidotal against marginalization, where his is an act towards it. Characteristic of Mackenzie, the sexual exchanges are rugged and earthy, without the sheen or idealism of more commercial fare.
These scenes increasingly ascribe to personal meaning. For example, after Jim is sent off to boarding school she says to Joe, “Every time I see him go….it breaks my heart. He needs an education.” Presumably she wants Jim to have options other than working on the barge his entire life. As such, the demands of an increasingly educated society alienate her from her own son and create a gulf of loneliness that she navigates by busy work and by the diversion of a primal enterprise with Joe. In the scene in which she expresses these feelings to Joe, Ella bears her breasts and he kisses them in the midst of her mournful maternal sway.
Past and present, everything Joe does is an analysis of his own loneliness, an antidote, but of a confirmation that that loneliness isn’t exceptional. What sparks his passion is any confrontation with a soul as electrically lonely as his own, which is as affixed to that loneliness as he is. In a strangely Zen exercise, he probes into these individuals – literally through sex – as a way to understand himself through them as a reflection. On this point Joe Taylor finds a conceptual kinship with William James, played by Jeremy Renner of The Hurt Locker (2008), a film that also favors personal storytelling over explicit socio-politics. Like Joe, he relegates himself from society as a deliberate mode of actualization. As with Joe’s pattern of sexuality, James, part of a US bomb-squad in the Middle-East, only sparks when in the field, faced with perilous but empirical matters, situational analysis and survival. He is equally tactile, equally stilled on the surface, equally spare on words, equally at odds with expectation and normalcy. Much like James’ reaction to banal domesticity, what diffuses Joe’s passion most is when those lonely souls he courts become comfortable and expectant, shattering the mutual veneer of a dismal worldview and eliminating their viability as a test subject. Ella does this by anticipating their marriage and future. In the course of his exteriorized self-study, like James’s reckless decisions in the field, Joe is astounded by what acts he is willing to partake of in anticipation of a consequence which never befalls him; citing the sexual hazing scene with Cathie that undulates between rape and play. Her unspoken unblinking forgiveness afterward signals her invalidity as a mirror and is his queue to move on.
As attained easily on a barge, the peripheral world remains so for most of the film. The viewer has only passing revelations on which to hinge a socio-political subtext, as do the characters, which follow the dead woman’s story through newspaper articles. After Les discovers the affair, seemingly by Ella’s machination, he leaves and Joe finds himself assuming his post. In a conversation with Joe, Ella puts forward Les’ fear that “Once fuel rationing stops, the trucks’ll take over.” Just after this remark, the barge is shown easing through a dense fog. So dense that Ella must direct from the bow with shouts. Joe spies prisoners paving a road. The infrastructure that will eventually supercede the canals is being built-up before Joe’s eyes. This moment resounds with notes of entrapment; that of Joe having inherited a scraping conventional life, that of a systemic uncertainty about his navigating a changing world, that of guilt.
At this point of the film, Ella’s brother-in-law dies, having fallen off his Lorrie and then run over by a bus; an off-screen event coupling even the industry of roads with death. As if inviting full collapse, Ella asks her grieving yet brazen sister Gwen (Therese Bradley) to stay on the barge. In a transparent scheme of “going to the pictures,” Gwen and Joe have sex in an alleyway in town; an unsavory means to an end for Gwen to spite her sister’s seeming happiness, and for Joe to incite a way out. Joe moves into a shared flat in the city and becomes infectiously drawn to the trial of one David Gordon, a plumber and family man convicted of murdering the woman found by Joe and Les with whom Mr. Gordon was having casual relations. Joe’s intimate knowledge of the circumstances of the woman’s death; that she is in fact Cathie Dimley, that she cannot swim, that she slipped into the river after telling Joe she was pregnant with his child, that he did nothing to save her, that he covered up the evidence of their clandestine sexual contract that night (revealed in bits of savage dramatic irony) is Mr. Gordon’s only salvation, yet the guilt does not impel Joe to speak out in other than an ineffectual unsigned letter which he drops at the court. Joe writes his confession in a phone booth, where even the airing of the truth is conditional, confined and anonymous.
Young Adam is, in a sense, a post-war story. Not just WWII. Post any war. That story about a society that’s so traumatized by so much violence for so many years and trying to get itself together and trying to construct all sorts of boundaries, and intellectuals feeling alienated and not wanting to join in… (Swinton) Unable to relate to his generation’s status quo optimism – the gulf of which is sealed in the image of three university students walking past him with utter levity – Joe unmoors from trappings of monogamy, career, possession, morality; the very buoy of his alienation. But Joe tangentially participates with society; allowing the cogs of industry to turn by carting fuel on the barge, and allowing the machinations of justice to churn by bystanding the wrongful sentencing of Daniel Gordon.
The story is partly an indictment of the death penalty and the ease of factual distortion. The seeking of a conviction is as much a feverish means-to-an-end modality as Joe’s own sexual exploits. The halls, corridors, and arches of justice are as narrow as the tunnels, canals, locks, and the barge. In the courtroom where “truth” is excised in short parentheticals and strung together to paint portraits of extremes, Joe plays with his pocket mirror and watches himself watching with the detachment he affords all his tests of fate.
By trial’s end, Joe is more intense than ever. He steps to the river’s edge framed again by the ripples. We look down upon him from behind almost as though he were now the body floating dead. He looks at himself in the pocket mirror, the last time he will do so seeking glimmers of humanity or reason to think lightly of life. And Joe’s great nightmare, that it is indeed possible to live a life without leaving fingerprints, to drift through without responsibility…that seemed some kind of liberal dream… it’s actually a nightmare.” (Swinton)
At the end of the novel Trocci writes, “…the disintegration had already begun,” and Mackenzie masterfully interprets: From above and behind, the camera swoops into a ¾ close-up of Joe looking at the river. Joe’s absence-of-presence is a weight where it should be a weightlessness. He holds and then walks off, the weighty pack on his back, into the deep blurred disintegration of the background. The film is merely a preamble to Joe’s ultimate course of immorality and marginalization in a world where justice is subjective and guilt is livable.