The name "Adam" conjures many associations and images, not the least of which is the biblical Adam. The implication: young, naive, corruptible by women, apples, and serpents. Young Adam, a taut and smoldering psychosexual study in slow-motion suspense, features nearly the opposite young, intelligent but oblivious, serpentine Ewan McGregor an involuntary corruptor of women and nobody's husband.
Joe (McGregor) works a barge along the rivers between Glasgow and Edinburgh, Scotland. The barge is owned by Ella (Tilda Swinton) and run by her husband Les (Peter Mullan). Theirs is a utilitarian marriage with a child in tow, and all of their body language suggests a couple that live too closely together and have been together too long. Ella sneers and leers at Joe, perhaps aware of his lusty, calculating ways, or perhaps she's just a sourpuss. One day, Joe spots the near-naked body of a woman floating nearby, and he and Les pull it ashore, finding themselves just shy of the newspaper spotlight when a murder trial ensues for a dim, married plumber who turns out to have been her boyfriend. Does Joe know this woman?
On a drunken, dart-playing, bar-hopping evening, Joe returns to the barge early, finding Ella as ripe and lusty as he. They copulate on a nearby trail and then return to the barge as though nothing had happened with Ella's prickly disregard for Joe the perfect cover for what develops into a genuine affair. Since Les drinks a lot, Joe and Ella are permitted lots of opportunities for getting it on, and before long, they figure out how to mine impromptu liaisons out of each and every day. Les can't steer the boat and search out adultery at the same time, can he? Eventually, of course, the two are careless, and Les spies them sleeping. Les leaves Ella and Joe to their awkward affair, with nothing in common other than sex. Joe's not much of a talker, and Ella's kind of a cold fish, so it's not long before that relationship similarly implodes.
Joe reads a lot. And he tries to write. In flashback, we see a former relationship disintegrate when his young lover can no longer bear the frustration of working to support them both when all Joe does is sit at home and try to think of good books to write. The scene explodes sexually into an intense humiliation for the woman, as Joe reveals that while sexually virile, he is intellectually and creatively impotent. As is the case with impotence, there tends to be an overcompensation elsewhere in the psyche. He has no sense of allegiance to men or obligation to women, and he mates indiscriminately, be it with his friend's wife, his lover's sister, or his landlady. When a key opportunity arises to save a life, his decision is based not on right or wrong but on the level of inconvenience to him.
Young Adam is easy to admire but elusive to enjoy. There is no protagonist with which one can (or would want to) identify, and the sex isn't fun. That's the point, I think, with a sexual compulsive like young Joe. There's no love in it, nor is there any joy in the seduction. It's all about the accomplishment and the immediate gratification. You can tell that when Ella starts mentioning marriage, Joe's mind has already checked out and is on to the next conquest, while guilt and suspicion linger ever overhead.
McGregor is a magnificent actor, exhibiting versatility unlike almost any other leading man of his generation, hopping effortlessly from breezy comedies like Down With Love to the musical melodrama of Moulin Rouge to the gritty drama of Trainspotting and Black Hawk Down. It's great to see him here, underplaying and beneath the surface at all times a de-glamorized un-hero, and he captures the haze of loveless hunger perfectly. Swinton, an unconventional but compelling beauty, anchors what little morality can be found in the film by eventually getting around to doing the right thing, even if it is more out of desperation than uprightness. She is hot and cold at once, like and unlike McGregor's lukewarm/cool drifter.
Curiously, there is no "Adam" in this film. Swinton, in an interview with The Washington Post, referred to the title's Chinese translation, which is "The river remembers lost loves." There is one nagging question that haunts me still: After all of the precious things Joe throws away into the river, why does he save the one thing he hates? Thoughtful, independent films like Young Adam typically offer more questions than answers, and amid all of the amoralities and betrayals, this one act of correctness was an unexpected virtue.