Working on a freight barge traveling up and down Scotland's River Clyde, Young Adam's Ewan McGregor follows a set path, but his soul keeps drifting off into the distance. A lodger at sea helping to fill a need for economical deliveries created by post-war fuel rationing, McGregor shares close quarters with Peter Mullan, Mullan's wife (Tilda Swinton), and their young son (Jack McElhone). When Mullan's not around, McGregor and Swinton share even more, but if living a lie bothers him, McGregor doesn't let it show. After a hard day's work, he can still help Mullan sponge off the grime. Literally, he has his partner's back, but in every other sense, the situation is different.
Then again, McGregor might just be shaken, having recently helped Mullan drag a negligee-clad female corpse from the water. Mullan sees it as an unfathomable mystery that anyone could end up in such a state, but McGregor thinks otherwise: In one scene, he imagines the drowning victim choosing to undress before chucking it all, but Young Adam goes on to reveal that he knows exactly how easy it can be to talk women out of their dresses—in boats, on beaches, in alleyways, and even by riversides. Though bookish to all appearances, he quietly lives a rake's life, quietly making a rake's progress to a bitter end.
Films from Velvet Goldmine to Moulin Rouge to Down With Love have proven that few actors possess McGregor's dynamism, but in this adaptation of Alexander Trocchi's Beat-era novel, he plays to the other end of his range. In sync with David Mackenzie's deliberate direction, he creates tension with his casually dangerous liaisons, but the real drama comes from moments that demand action McGregor refuses to provide. When McElhone falls into a river, he springs overboard to save him without a thought. But when doing the right thing comes with personal consequences, he becomes a paralyzed Hamlet in workers' boots.
Like The Dreamers earlier this year, Young Adam has attracted attention, and an NC-17 rating, for its unblinking sex scenes. Also like The Dreamers, it wouldn't hang together without them: One sequence in particular seems likely to be seen differently by different viewers, and its ambiguity requires the explicitness. In this long, slow fall from grace, unceremonious nudity and half-hearted sex begin to look like a mockery of a paradise lost.