Adapted from the Alexander Trocchi novel by writer-director David Mackenzie, Young Adam is set in an anti-Eden 1950s Scotland, where ration cards are still required and a strong back is still the first requisite for most jobs. McGregor is Joe Taylor, a would-be writer earning his living by toiling on a barge named Atlantic Eve that hauls coal and scrap metal on the narrow canals (themselves a metaphor about restriction) connecting Glasgow and Edinburgh. Swinton plays the barge's owner, Ella Gault. She counts the money and dispenses wages. Ella's husband, Les (Peter Mullan), and Joe do the lifting and shoveling. Everybody lives below deck, where curtains and thin slats provide minimal privacy. Les is a drinker, and Ella regards him with unvarnished contempt. Their decaying relationship provides fertile soil for bold betrayal. Joe makes a pass at her under the dinner table, and pretty soon they are sleeping together with little regard for the chance that Les might catch them.
Through its first third, Young Adam would seem to be a movie about diminished expectations in a bleak world. Ella and Joe grab onto sex with a stark physical hunger because it's the only intensity they can have. They don't love each other. They don't even know each other. Their coupling is hot, urgent, frenzied and spiritless. But ultimately, this is Joe's story, and there's more to it. There's the story of his gentleness with the nearly naked corpse of a young woman he and Les pull from the canal one morning and his interest in and concern for the plumber who is accused of murdering her. And in sunny flashbacks standing in stark contrast to the routinely foggy barge scenes, there's the story of Joe's relationship with Cathie Dimly (Emily Mortimer), a woman Joe meets on a beach and subsequently lives with for a year.
Joe's time with Cathie is a passage through paradise. They are young and good looking, and their lovemaking exhibits the tenderness and caring that Joe's encounters with Ella never approach. Cathie, anyway, considers herself in love. She wants to marry and spend her life with Joe. She supports him while he works on a novel whose literary ambitions she cannot comprehend. But as we know, paradise does not prevail. Humans are selfish and lacking in self-control. Joe is moody and taciturn. Cathie can turn cranky and resentful. One day after getting soaked in a rain shower coming home from work, she complains about the burden of supporting him, and he responds with a shocking ferocity. All in a violent instant, everything they might have had together is shattered.
We come to understand that Joe's feelings for Cathie never matched hers for him. Joe is a man who promises women nothing, and they give themselves to him anyway. But Joe is not a man without a conscience, in his sexual relationships or in his other connections with his fellow beings. But his caring for other people will always be sacrificed to his own self-interest. He tells a friend he has betrayed: "It just happened. It wasn't about you personally." And yet the script steers clear of rendering Joe a definitive monster. And about one critical matter in Joe's story, the film challenges the viewer to wonder who might behave differently in Joe's circumstances. In sum, Young Adam is about as depressing a film as I've seen in a long while. Movies frequently address humankind's failings, but even when displaying atrocious behavior, most films try to hold out the hope that we can learn to do and be better. Young Adam doesn't. The picture's morality resides in its judgment. We are innately sinful creatures, and we aren't going to change. We ought to do and be better, but we won't.