Ewan McGregor delivers a frightening against-type performance in this dark but extremely well made Scottish drama. He stars as Joe, a young man working on a canal barge between Edinburgh and Glasgow in the 1950s.
The other three people on the barge are his boss Les (Peter Mullan), Les’ wife Ella (Tilda Swinton) and their young son Jim (Jack McElhone). In the opening scene, Les and Joe fish a dead body out of the canal, which seems to start something in Joe he is both unable and unwilling to control. While reminiscing about his now-ended romance with Cathie (Emily Mortimer) and the life they could have led together, Joe seduces the sexually frustrated Ella. But soon he starts looking elsewhere–everywhere!–for sex and intimacy. Can Joe ever find what he’s looking for?
Based on the novel by Scottish beat-poet Alexander Trocchi and adapted by the gifted David Mackenzie (“The Last Great Wilderness”), this is an unusually introspective film that refuses to play by the rules. We learn just as much about the characters in the silences, and it helps that all of the performances are spot on. McGregor has never been this darkly complex, playing a sociopath who has enough charm and promise to make us like him. Sort of. And Swinton’s brittle strength has never been this effective on screen.
The actors are augmented by remarkably beautiful (and gloomy) cinematography and an intriguing David Byrne score. As the events progress, what happens on screen is often virtually the opposite of what’s really going on under the surface, and it’s to everyone’s credit that it works as well as it does, subtly getting deep under the characters’ skins and exposing some uncomfortable truths about being human. This is a finely crafted film for grown-ups only … and it’s hard to remember the last time we had one that was this provocative and moving.
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