Scottish writer-director David Mackenzie's impressive second feature is a cool and creepy adaptation of Glaswegian Beat writer Alexander Trocchi's 1957 novel about a disaffected young man who wrestles with his conscience only to discover that he may not have one at all. A white swan paddles across the screen and the livid, bloated corpse of a dead woman, dressed only in a slip, floats into frame. It's the 1950s, somewhere on the shore of the River Clyde, where bargemen like Joe (Ewan McGregor) and his grizzled boss, Les (Peter Mullan), make their living hauling coal up and down the canals that connect the capital city with Edinburgh. Joe spots the body, but Les drags it ashore. Les captains the cramped barge on which they both live with Les's wife, Ella (Tilda Swinton), a sour woman whose deep discontent leaves her susceptible to Joe's considerable charms, and Les and Ella's son, Jim (Jack McElhone). As Joe waits for the police to arrive, his behavior towards the corpse seems disconcertingly tender — his hand lingers briefly on her back, he winces when her leg slips from the police stretcher — and the series of flashbacks that intrudes on the present action makes it clear that Joe knew the drowned woman. Her name was Cathie (Emily Mortimer) and once upon a time, before Joe abandoned his attempts to create a bold new literary form and submerged his ambitions in the gloomy canals, she and Joe were lovers. That was a lifetime ago but their final meeting was actually only a few nights earlier, after an unexpected reunion on a city street. The corpse's state of undress leads the police to treat the matter as a possible homicide, but was it really? Could Joe be guilty of an even greater crime than murder? Trocchi published two different versions of his novel, one for general consumption and a second for readers whose tastes include explicit sex. Mackenzie seems to have relied on the racier edition for his screenplay: There's plenty of flesh on display — though not enough, really, to warrant an NC-17 rating — but the coupling is oddly passionless, desperate rather than erotic. Momentarily freed from the confines of STAR WARS-sized spectacles that only dwarf his talents, McGregor demonstrates just how far he's come as an actor. Swinton, meanwhile, adds another notch to a resume already crowded with good performances; she's perfect as an exhausted wife who seems uncomfortable with all but the most fleeting happiness.
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- Released: 2003
- Rating: NC-17
- Review: Scottish writer-director David Mackenzie's impressive second feature is a cool and creepy adaptation of Glaswegian Beat writer Alexander Trocchi's 1957 novel about a disaffected young man who wrestles with his conscience only to discover that he may not ha… (more)