2004, NC-17, 99 min. Directed by David Mackenzie. Starring Ewan McGregor, Tilda Swinton, Peter Mullan, Emily Mortimer, Jack McElhone, Therese Bradley.
REVIEWED By Marrit Ingman, Fri., May 14, 2004
Like a barge groaning along the Clyde River, this finely observed moral drama based on the controversial first novel by Alexander Trocchi moves slowly and deliberately along its course. The film is set in post-World War II Scotland, but its tone and its telling are so stark, so Medieval, that it seems anachronistic when one of its characters picks up a telephone or plays a bebop jazz record. To answer the first question, yes, McGregor goes the full monty, accounting for the NC-17 rating. But while his character is ruled by his sexual compulsions and indulges them quite literally at every opportunity, the film is far from titillating. The most lasting impression is that of his anomie; his shiftless wanderings and search for pleasure surround a self that is hollow to its core. The story begins when Joe (McGregor), an itinerant barge worker, and his employer (Mullan) fish a woman’s lifeless body, clad in a full slip, out of the river. From there it winds backward and forward in time – between Joe’s past relationship with a secretary (Mortimer) and the inevitable seduction of Ella (Swinton), his foreman’s wife and the owner of the barge. Life on the river is hard – we see Ella mainly at work in her smock dresses, beating rugs, hanging laundry, heating a kettle so the men can wash the dirt off each other’s backs. Mackenzie’s camera lingers on the grime on their cuticles and the cracks in the walls: no love boat this. But even as she’s peeling potatoes for supper with her son (McElhone), Joe fixes Ella with a stare that can mean only one thing. As Ella, Swinton matches handsome devil McGregor – and perhaps then some – with her intensity. Her keen, angular features lend her an idiosyncratic beauty, and she always comes across onscreen as emotionally raw. If her passions were truly unleashed, she’d eat a smirking womanizer like Joe for breakfast and boil his bones for soup. But – and it’s not giving too much away to say this – she loves with her heart, not just her loins, and Joe always has his eyes on the horizon. Midway through, the story throws a curveball, a true test of Joe’s moral mettle, and the answer is haunting indeed. I feel compelled to note that the film is limited to Joe’s (admittedly) antiheroic perspective. He doesn’t regard women kindly, so the scenes with his lovers reflect his misogyny, some more so than others. It’s not always easy to watch – it shouldn’t be. You have been warned. On the technical end, Mackenzie seems to be one of the rare directors who is equally adept at composition and working with his actors. From the sooty riverbanks of industrial Scotland he fashions a landscape that is gravely beautiful, but never falsely romantic. One beautiful fogbound scene artfully suggests the morass his characters are trying to escape. He’s a filmmaker to watch.