Ewan McGregor, Peter Mullan, Tilda Swinton
by Kate Bobby
Young Adam (1954) by Scottish novelist Alexander Trocchi, was representative
of a brief cultural collision between the Beat Generation and the emergence
of Great Britain’s ‘angry young man’ period of the mid-Fifties
and Sixties. Many of the books, plays and films belonging to this revolutionary
period, often dubbed ‘kitchen sink’ arts and entertainment (Look
Back In Anger, A
Room at the Top, Saturday
Night and Sunday Morning, The
Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner, to name a few) feature a legion
of men not at all unlike Joe, the anti-hero at the center of Trocchi’s
Disaffected, detached, disillusioned, what have you, Joe is a post-war phenomenon.
He rails and chafes against the values and ideals to which his parents cleaved.
The hard day’s work for a day’s pay, the merry, squalling brood,
and the cookie-cutter council flats are swapped for a life of drifting from
job to job, bed to bed, drink to drink, and calling it as one sees it. Closer
to a Beat than a pissed-off working class stiff, however, Trocchi’s own
Joe forgoes the kitchen sink speechifying altogether. Adopting rootlessness
as his very direction in life, the road, leading nowhere, is ultimately home.
Although the film adaptation of Young Adam will not most likely ensure
cinematic glory for Trocchi’s ultimately chilly prose, David Mackenzie’s
hypnotic cinematic adaptation of Adam is an interesting glimpse at
the Beat Generation’s overseas incarnation. Like the spare book of the
same name, the film unfolds as a first-person narrative belonging to Joe (Ewan
McGregor), a drifter not even invested with a last name.
Fittingly, Joe’s story begins midway, as if someone has just spontaneously
set up a camera. From there, it jumps back and forth in time, cobbling together
connections among Joe, our reluctant protagonist, his seemingly random discovery
of a dead woman’s body in the water, as well as the lives of other people
he has met. Chief among them are Les (Peter Mullan) and his increasingly estranged
wife, Ella (Tilda Swinton) who together run a river barge, making the best of
Scotland’s ravaged post-war economy.
Inevitably, proximity breeds more proximity and lonesome Joe beds Ella sometime
between drinks and an aborted game of darts with a lager-soaked Les. The name
of the game is merely making the time pass in Joe’s view and the dalliance
certainly has little to do with love. As in the book, the affair – one
among many – seems the best way for Joe to take his mind off the dead
woman, for reasons that are his to have.
Doing their very best to make Adam into more than it is, the film’s
cast is the first reason to hang in there. Ewan McGregor (Trainspotting)
in the lead role impressively manages to convey just enough beneath the surface
to keep you interested. Ever the striking risk taker, Tilda Swinton (Orlando),
thinks nothing of dulling down the looks for a chance to do the job right. As
Ella, she is all rough edges, stoutly presiding over what Joe regards as marriage;
a graveyard with a crib.
Thankfully, too, Scotland has also given us the fine actor, Peter Mullan (My
Name is Joe) who has taken a brief break from his burgeoning career as
a director (The
Magdalene Sisters) to play the well-meaning Les, a man born with no
words for what Joe is. There is also haunting interplay between David Byrne’s
violin-soaked soundtrack and Giles Nuttgens cinematography, steeped in chiaroscuro.
This film leaves one with the sense that David Mackenzie, the screenwriter
and director behind Adam, is now primed to lend his considerable punch
to a better-matched round the next time he gets behind the camera.
Sadly but not unexpectedly, Young Adam, a heralded debut in 1954,
would mark a zenith of Trocchi’s worldly recognition and success. By the
mid-Fifties, Trocchi, living the life of a Beat writer in Paris, had discovered
heroin, slipping into a habit that would dog him for the next 30 years, up to
his death. In the intervening time, he would write only one more mainstream
Book, about an addicted drifter. Banned in England upon publication,
however, it did result in Trocchi’s complete canonization as a Beat, the