2003Director: David Mackenzie
Cast: Ewan McGregor, Tilda Swinton, Peter Mullan
ch—men with turned-up collars smoking cigarettes in the freezing mist beside a canal past factories and docks and grey tenements, chipped mugs of tea in the wee cabin of the barge and dour women working.
An absorbing grey atmosphere enwraps the story of Joe (Ewan McGregor), a young lad working on a coal barge in 1950's Glasgow, living and working aboard with husband and wife (Peter Mullan and Tilda Swinton), bairn (Jack McElhone), tea (Ceylon), tobacco (rough shag), potatoes, coal, rain and mist.
Joe, however, is capable of dark acts, accompanied by his contemplation and rejection of guilt. Does true guilt descend upon him at the conclusion of the film? Our sense of retribution depends entirely upon this final question, the only motive for us to lighten our condemnation of Joe. Yet even perceiving this guilt cannot annul the fearsome injustice of the film's conclusion—it’s too late to change anything now. In this respect the film is a brave testimony to the unresolved unhappy ending—the injustice of the court room that does not become justice, does not end with the innocent party saved seconds before the deathly verdict. Thus the justice lies in our belief that Joe embodies, becomes and lives his guilt, and that this is his punishment.
Or fuck it—if he’s capable of two acts he’s capable of three or four. Continue smoking cigarettes in the mist and fucking in the bushes by the towpath or against the wall of a factory. Smoking while fucking in the damp darkness. Fucking and fucking up people’s lives. Poetic touch - and the lassie will always brew tea after.
The great challenge of the film arises from the relationship between the viewer and the chief protagonist Joe. The narrative focus of the film centres on the perspective of Joe. He thus becomes the first-person narrator without a narrative voice. This is a time-honoured position that encourages a sympathetic/empathetic reaction from the audience— ‘before you condemn me let me tell you why I murdered him…’ Because of this thread of communication the viewer feels the longing between Joe and Ella, and, although not encouraging them in their first of many illicit unions, cannot help but accept the reality of desire in a cramped barge, exacerbated by the fact that Joe is a lusty active tea-drinking tobacco-smoking coal-stained laddie, and Ella is the unsatisfied wife of an impotent, gruff and oft-drunk husband.
Yet this trust begins to strain.
Joe fucks the marriage of Les and Ella and sends Les away from the barge, then fucks the gin-soaked recently widowed friend of his in an alley (all of half a ciggie in duration), then leaves the barge. He promptly leaps into another wife's bed. All the while the film cuts back to the former relationship that Joe had with the lassie Cathy (Emily Mortimer). Living parasitically, smoking and drinking away her earnings, he repays her by hurling custard and ketchup over her nakedness and raping her, (sodomy? A visible nod to Bertolucci).
Our only line of hope is that the guilt of the central plot, which I'm not revealing, afflicts him.
Does he suffer the guilt? At the end of the day, do we really care?
Well it’s hard not to. The audaciousness of the film is its portrayal of a real character, in many respects a likeable character—who’s an asshole. Couple this with the film’s defiance of the need to resolve the injustice, or to apologise for the brutality, and you have an engaging, dour, misty, grey, intriguing film.
A genuine film, not least as McGregor can return to his native accent following his disastrous and embarrassing attempts at an English accent in Star Wars episodes I and II, and the horrendous Moulin Rouge. Hats off to him, moreover, for returning to the honest, gritty Loach-esque drama, after shocking himself and his audience in Baz Luhrmann's shocker. Peter Mullan, as demonstrated in My Name is Joe and Trainspotting, defiantly convincing in this role as the bargeman. Tilda Swinton, spectral, brittle, hard, alluring, even in a headscarf.
And who is the eponymous Adam?
By: Billy Rowlandson
Published on: 2004-04-21