Joe Taylor (Ewan McGregor) lives and works on a coal barge with married couple Ella (Tilda Swinton) and Les Gault (Peter Mullan). This life is an odd mixture. At times, life is extremely claustrophobic–Joe has to sit and eat meals with the Gaults as they bicker, and he’s also privy to details of the intimate side of their married life. The Gaults aren’t a particularly pleasant couple. Ella is dour, joyless, and has an extremely unattractive personality. She barks orders at Les, and he meekly submits. It’s as though no pleasure or enjoyment is allowed on the barge–it’s all work and no play as far as Ella is concerned. At other times, life on the lochs is free, independent, and quite beautiful, and the film’s cinematography emphasizes this through scenes of the barge negotiating the loch system of Scotland between Glasgow and Edinburgh.
One day, Joe and Les fish the body of a young woman from the water. She’s only partially clothed, and there’s a great deal of speculation in the newspapers about her death. Through a series of flashbacks, it is revealed that Joe knew the drowned woman–she was, in fact, an old girlfriend, but Joe doesn’t tell a soul. This seems peculiar, but Joe, it seems has his reasons for keeping quiet…
Visually, the film is stunning, and excellent performances further propel this film into high watchability. Tilda Swinton is a fine actress who always selects her roles very carefully. Each new role allows us to see Swinton in a different light, and indeed the role of Ella Gault does show an alternate side of Swinton. She’s just as unglamorous as possible here, and yet she’s the only woman on a boat with two men…. Close ups of Ella’s slightly flaring nostrils indicate there’s a passionate woman somewhere beneath that apron.
The plot is slightly problematic. Just as the film seems to lead us one way, we’re pulled another. At first the emphasis is on the three characters stuffed into the barge. Joe seems to be a fairly harmless young man–a bit of a bookworm, but as the story continues, it becomes evident that Joe is capable of some rather unpleasant things. His reactions are not predictable, and this is due to the fact that emotion is largely absent. Like many films and books (Morvern Callar & Trainspotting, for example) from Scotland recently, Young Adam has a bleakness and moral ambiguity that may not appeal to all viewers.