There are some men who are irresistible to women. Portraying such a stud
here is the star of "Moulin
Rouge" and "Big Fish"...
none less than Ewan McGregor, a Scot who rules the boudoir and fantasies of
any female he casts his penetrating eyes upon. In this Glasgow framework
where the tonality is far from the bright hues of movies past, he's got the
moves and the looks to make it work in a character study that is bleak and
noirish from the grey clouds to the sea floor. Even without an actual
Under the opening titles, a woman floats on the surface of the Glasgow
harbor, dead, drowned. Joe Taylor (McGregor), a hand on a barge that carries
goods between Edinburgh and Glasgow along the Scottish canals, is the first
to spot her. He and his boss Les Gault (Peter Mullan) fish the body onto the
pier and call the authorities. The irony of this discovery is not apparent
until we learn in a flashback not only what his relationship is to the dead
woman, but that he's the only person who knows the circumstances of her
Back at the barge, Les' wife Ella (Tilda Swinton) makes dinner for the men
and her young son Jim (Jack McElhone). Joe's lustful eye works on
sex-starved Ella in its usual way and, before long we have him apologizing to
Les and offering to collect his things and take off. But it's Les who leaves
because it's Ella's barge. As this is going on, flashbacks to his life with
Cathie (Emily Mortimer) reveal their first meeting and the development of a
relationship that goes bad only when she starts talking about being pregnant
and getting hitched.
With husband Les out of the way, the new man of the barge enjoys an unimpeded
love fest with Ella until she invites her sister for a wee visit. Joe the
opportunist is no more capable of resisting the new female on the scene's
invitation for a little carnal action than he can stop breathing. Ella isn't
deceived for a second and Joe is off the boat and out of a job, just as the
news hits that dead Cathie's only known boyfriend is being accused of murdering
her. Joe is held in the grip of moral tension as he attends the trial and
wrestles with the possible consequences of coming forward as a witness in
order to spare the innocent man.
His final decision is as bleak and dark as the watery canals, but no more
spiritless than the misguided justice that an inept legal system makes
possible, leaving us with moral emptiness and the weight of purposelessness.
The heavy web of adultery and lust is based on the novel by Scottish
beat-poet Alexander Trocchi and adapted by writer-director David Mackenzie to
seize us in the grip of an anti-hero who is fascinating enough to compel our
interest, if not sympathies. While he takes on a role antithetical to his
recent hits, he demonstrates his bulletproof appeal in a spectrum of
character complexity, from soft and musical to calmly opportunistic.
Tilda Swinton meets the challenge in her own intense and mysteriously
motivated way, always finding dimensions of character beyond the page. Emily
Mortimer, the most normal of the lot, provides the story its sunniest light
even though her obsession is another dense mental note. Giles Nuttgens'
photography provides the right mood for the surfaces and subsurfaces of the
gloomy psychology underlying a provocative story. It's a downer, but a
mature, evocative one.
~~ Jules Brenner