Saturday, 1 February 2014

Young Adam (2003)

The Scottish writer Alexander Trocchi is a difficult one to pin down, a sort of noirish beat writer with existentialist angst, a true angry young figure of the 50s, it is these qualities that leap off the page of much of his work, especially his 1957 novel Young Adam which took a long 46 year route to be adapted for the screen.

Incidentally, if you think Trocchi's avant garde genre is difficult, it's nowhere near as difficult as the man allegedly was. Caustically described by Hugh MacDairmid as 'cosmopolitan scum' and once claiming 'sodomy' as a basis for his writing, this was a man who was clearly troubled by demons and destined to be ill behaved and both applauded and condemned in equal measure. A former seaman Trocchi developed a lifelong heroin addiction in Paris after obtaining a travelling grant from the University of Glasgow. It was an addiction that led to him prostituting his own wife on the streets of New York to fund his habit, injecting live on national TV and narrowly escaping a jail term for supplying the drug to a minor by crossing the border to Canada with the help of Norman Mailer. Returning to the UK, he set up home in Kensington, forever writing but publishing little. He resorted to opening a book store in Notting Hill and died of pneumonia in 1984. 

The talented Scottish director David Mackenzie (The Last Great Wilderness, Hallam Foe, Perfect Sense) brought Young Adam to the screen with a suitably bruised palette but makes some headway in making the principal character Joe less of a blank, both morally and characteristically, as he is on the page. It's a risky proposition casting the cheeky smiling and charismatic Ewan McGregor but they each manage to invest some humanity and some softening for Joe, but not too much. McGregor for his part tamps down the charisma and maintains a suitably stone faced expression throughout but I'm not convinced for all his work he nails the essence of the role or the character Trocchi truly intended - someone perhaps not a million miles away from himself.

It's interesting that the film did without the first person narration the novel employed, making for a less personal and less claustrophobic mind set. It works, but I wonder if the deployment of a voice over, in the style of the traditional noir or Scorsese's Taxi Driver, would have made the proceedings better. Then again...who knows?

The film is well structured though it's easy at first to slip up with the non linear timeline the narrative holds. It is a suitably bleak tale of hopelessness and despair aided by strong naturalistic acting. I especially like the performances of Tilda Swinton (when is she ever not good?) Peter Mullan and Emily Mortimer. Not a film to watch on Valentine's Day that's for sure - at least not with your girlfriend or wife if you're so disposed - it's a morally empty misogynistic tale of users and the used and the eking out of the small selfish pleasures of a dreary dreich life.

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