UK, 2003, 98 minutes, Colour.
Ewan Mc Gregor, Tilda Swinton, Peter Mullan, Emily Mortimer.
Directed by David Mackenzie.
Novelist Alexander Trocchi is now being re-discovered. He is seen as one of the Beat novelists, reflecting the existentialist trends of the time, the anti-hero who lives in the present, who moves from one episode in life to another, often without regard to consequences. Trocchi was, for decades, a desperate heroin addict. His anti-hero seems addictive but is something of a sex-addict.
This film version of his 1955 novel re-creates Glasgow in the early 50s. This has been superbly done. The characters work on the barges in the canal system, transporting coal and fuel. We feel we have been there and experienced this life. The photography is complemented by an atmospheric score by David Byrne (of Talking Heads) and the lyrics of a final credits song about anti-heroes.
Ewan Mc Gregor is a drifter, Joe, a reader and would-be writer, working on a barge managed by your ordinary labourer, Les, a fine, bluff Peter Mullan, and owned by his hard-working wife, Ella, played by Tilda Swinton, completely convincing as a dowdy woman trapped in drudgery and an increasingly drab marriage who responds to the drifter discovering passion and sensuality that she had never suspected. The other principal character is Cathie, Emily Mortimer. She has embarked on an affair with Joe which has unexpected consequences which are revealed in flashbacks which are initially confusing, making us think at first that they are part of the narrative. Gradually, they build up another story and to a climax where Joe has to the opportunity to make a profound moral choice.
While Ewan Mc Gregor acts well, his character is difficult and challenging to respond to - which, of course, is the aim of the film-makers. He is both charming and impersonal, sensitive and callous, sometimes deep, sometimes callow. He is also sexually impetuous.
This is gritty film-making, a slice of life where characters are not simply good or evil, but tantalisingly complex.
1. The adaptation of the celebrated beat novel by Alexander Trocchi? The perspective, existentialist, amoral, the importance of the search for meaning? The effect of addictions? The autobiographical elements of Trocchi in the novel? As transferred to the film?
2. The early 1950s, the look of Glasgow, the canals, the coal industry, commerce? The port? The homes, flats? The fair? The courts? The saturated colour, the feel and tone of the early 50s? The musical score, the songs?
3. The title, Joe as the symbolic young Adam? In what kind of Eden? Before the fall or not? The barge being called Atlantic Eve? Ella and her being the Eve in Adam's experience?
4. The structure of the film: the floating body in the water, the underwater sequences and the litter on the water bed? The finding of the body, Joe trying to fish it out, Les and his help? The aftermath and the police, Joe and Les carrying on work? The interest of each one? Joe embarking on his affair with Ella? The insertion of the flashbacks, the confusion in audiences trying to place the flashbacks in Joe's experience? The cumulative effect of the relationship with Cathie? The build-up to her death? The realisation that the opening of the film was only some hours after the death which was presented later in the film? The build-up to the trial, Joe and his being challenged, conscience, the written confession, anonymity, the condemnation of the man and Joe's wandering off?
5. The issues of the anti-hero of the times? Intelligent, a reader, typewriter and writing? His living in the present moment, not thinking about consequences? The tag 'existentialist' as applying to him? His work, his addiction to sex, his relationship with Cathie, its intensity, touches of brutality? The reaction to the pregnancy? The accident of Cathie's death and his covering it up? His relationship with Ella, deceiving Les, but being Frank to Les and saying that it was not personal? His comment about Jim, not being able to stand kids? Yet diving overboard to save him? His relationship with Ella's sister-in-law, outing, drinking, sex in the street? The aftermath in the barge? His getting a flat, the relationship with the owner, sexual, discussions about the trial? His life, his relationships, his sense of himself? The memories of Cathie and what they meant to him? His following the trial, the decision to go, listening to the evidence? The writing of the note - and its lack of effect? His being present at the guilty verdict? His not doing anything about it, the slight smile, his leaving? His genial charm as well as his self-centredness? Cruelty?
6. Ella, her owning the barge, her work on the barge, her relationship with Les, his drinking, potential impotence? Her growing anger with him? Her love for her son, Joe rescuing him and her relief? Her working for the two men, meals, giving more to Les? Making cups of tea? Helping with their baths? Her sexual frustration? Joe's approach, her succumbing, walking off the barge, the encounter by the canal? The further encounters, in the room, deceiving Les? Joe and his excuses? The final encounter with Les returning, pacing up and down, audibly? Ella's reaction, her spurning of Les, his leaving? Her demanding that he go and see their son at school? The son returning and his calling Joe a bastard? Ella and the danger passing, Joe not so interested because of the risk, her going away? Her glimpsing him in the court at the trial? Tilda Swinton's portrait of Ella, an ordinary woman, doing domestic and ordinary things, the intensity of her inner life, her sexuality and sensuality, her betraying her husband, her wanting a divorce, the response to Joe?
7. Les, the ordinary workman, on the Glasgow docks, on the canals? His fishing the body out of the water, his continued interest, looking in the paper? His relationship with Ella, his drinking, gambling, playing darts? His return, his impotence? His not suspecting Ella and Joe? On the canal, the hard work, the grime? Going to the pub, taking the boy to the fair? His gradual realisation of the truth, the more friendly parting from Joe? His leaving the barge? His being called to court, his giving evidence?
8. The other women, the sister-in-law, the grief at her husband's death, going out with Joe, drinking, flirting, the sexual encounter? Ella realising what had happened? The landlady, her husband, the sexual encounter, her bathing and discussing the case?
9. Jim, his age, growing up in the barge, love for his parents? His falling in the river and being rescued? Going to the fair? His going to school, returning and his animosity towards Joe?
10. Cathie, her meeting Joe on the beach, the affair, the intensity of their relationship, Joe's dependence on her, her dependence on him? His saying he was going to China? Her pregnancy, telling him, the sexual encounter, her attacking him and slipping into the water and drowning? The placing of the more violent sexual encounter towards the end of the film, Joe's throwing the custard at her, the saucers and the sugar? His humiliating her, her crying and laughing?
11. The accused, his friendship with Cathie, his being merely a friend, his being married, having children? The reports in the paper? The testimony, the room-mate who said the former boyfriend was going to China? His being trapped, her pregnancy, the opportunity, his protesting his innocence, condemned to hanging, his bewilderment? The atmosphere of the court, the judge, the prosecutor and his case, the defence? The people in the court watching?
12. The perspective of the 1950s, public morality, private morality? The Scottish tradition, the Calvinist overtones? The post-war period and people becoming more free-thinking? The parallels with the beginning of the 21st century?