How would she have done it, asks Les Gault after he and Joe Taylor fished a dead woman clothed only in a petticoat from the cold water next to the barge Joe works on. She'd take off her coat and her blouse and her dress, Joe says, "then shed her stockings and hold them out so that they blew in the breeze like pennants before she let them float off into the night. And she'd shiver and ask herself if she really wanted to go through with it. And she'd answer that question by kicking her clothes into the river. And hurriedly now she'd take off her garter and her knickers. And then she'd be standing in her petticoat thinking about whatever it was that brought her to this. And then with her petticoat billowing around her, she'd drop into the water like a rose and float there for a moment, and be gone." Joe (Ewan McGregor) works for Les (Peter Mullan) and his wife, Ella (Tilda Swinton) on the Gault's barge as it hauls everything from coal to container drums along the canals from Glasgow. The police at first think the girl, Cathy Dimly (Emily Mortimer) was a suicide, but then find she was pregnant and accuse a married man she knew of murder. Please note: Elements of the plot are discussed.
Joe's vision of Cathy's last moments is mesmerizing and dead wrong. She was undressed because, a few moments before, she and Joe were having sex on the dirt in a dockyard next to the river. She was pregnant, not by her married friend, but by Joe. She drowned because when Joe walked away from her she ran after him, lost her balance and fell in the river. Joe called her name a few times, but then threw her clothes into the river after her and hurried away.
Joe Taylor is a drifter. He wants to be a writer but doesn't work at it. He thinks as much with what's between his legs as with what's between his ears. He's passive in many ways, except when it comes to women. He was having sex with Cathy soon after they met. He began having sex with Ella, the tired, frustrated wife of Les and who turns out to own the barge, one evening when Joe went into town to play darts. "Are you sorry?" Joe asks her afterwards. "Fat lot of good that would do," Ella says as she walks back to the barge. Joe has sex with Ella's sister-in-law while still supposedly committed to Ella and shortly after the sister-in-law becomes a widow. He has sex with the married landlady where he stays after leaving the barge. The sex is passionate but joyless, against an alley wall, along the side of a canal, in the small bed of the barge where Ella's young son peeps through a crack in the wall. Joe can have what he wants, and he does, but with little personal involvement.
Joe knows the man on trial is innocent. At the last moment he writes an anonymous letter telling what actually happened. The man is found guilty anyway and condemned to hang. Joe finally just walks away.
Is that all there is? Yes and no. I found the movie frustrating because there was little emotional payoff for the viewer. Joe is not an especially bad guy, but he has no particular redeeming qualities. Sex comes easily for him, but doing something -- anything -- seems beyond his limit of selfishness. It makes for a movie that, I think, is intriguing to watch but not very involving.
On the other side of that argument are two strong elements. First, the look and style of the movie is first-rate. Everything about the movie is cold, overcast or raining and coal-begrimed. The love-making, with both female and male frontal nudity, is quick and efficient. There's no sentimentality here. Everyone smokes and you can sense the reek of stale cigarette breath. So much of the action takes place on the claustrophobic barge that it's not long before you want to take a deep breath of fresh air. Second, add to that some wonderful performances, especially by Tilda Swinton and Peter Mullan. If you want a glimpse of Swinton's enormous talent, look at her in two wildly different movies, Love Is the Devil and The Deep End, and then compare here. She's amazing. Ewan McGregor, too, does a fine job as the selfish, passive Joe. Young Adam may be a flawed movie, but it moves along at it's own pace. I found it interesting and worth viewing.