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 The World of Film in Australia - on the Internet Updated Friday May 22, 2020 


In the Glasgow of the early 1950s, Joe (Ewan Macgregor) is an intelligent but socially withdrawn young man who has abandoned his dream of writing in order to work and live on a barge with his mate Les (Peter Mullan) and Les' wife Ella (Tilda Swinton). One afternoon, Joe and Les find in the water the half-naked corpse of one of Joe's old girlfriends, Cathie (Emily Mortimer). But Joe remains silent about his troubled past, while his seduction of Ella leads him into deeper waters yet.

Review by Jake Wilson:
In David Mackenzie's adaptation of the 1950s cult novel by Alexander Trocchi, there are three separate worlds or fields of action, nestled inside each other like Russian dolls. The first is the precisely recreated world of a specific time and place: we're made to see and hear and almost smell the atmosphere of life on a crumbling barge as it ploughs its way in and out of old Glasgow, weatherbeaten jetties and derricks giving way to damp green countryside under a drizzling sky. There's a purely cinematic glamour to this vision of an open-air existence which leaves the mind to its own devices; standing at the tiller, Joe has nothing to do but gaze out at the horizon, while in his spare moments he's likely to be crouched on deck thumbing through a Penguin paperback, a fag at the corner of his mouth.

In contrast to this exterior chill is the warmth which Joe finds between the sheets or in dark corners, in a series of sexual encounters which might be happening now or a hundred years ago. What counts here isn't the period detail but Ewan Macgregor's male authority, which has deepened with the lines on his face but remains founded on an irresistible boyish slyness, like a crafty youngest son in a fairy-tale (roughly the role he played in Big Fish). Probably no-one else could hit the exact note of rueful bravado he gives to a line like "I'll write to you from China" - a cynic not quite reduced to mocking his own dreams.

Then there's the third world of the film, which has to be suggested rather than shown directly: the war inside Joe's head, as he struggles to keep his head above water while living up to his own confused ideals. I presume this anguish lies at the heart of Trocchi's novel, but here its force is diffused by the hazier surrounding levels of meaning. At the outer limit of the drama, the entire production is enveloped by a faint aura of retro-chic, suggested above all via David Byrne's noodling score. But Mackenzie's half-acknowledged distance from his source material only adds to the lilting sadness: Joe dreams of exotic adventure, unaware that he himself is a figure of fantasy, from an imagined time when rebellion felt real and China was a long way away.

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CAST: Ewan McGregor, Tilda Swinton, Peter Mullan, Emily Mortimer, Jack McElhone, Therese Bradley, Ewan Stewart

PRODUCER: Jeremy Thomas

DIRECTOR: David Mackenzie

SCRIPT: David Mackenzie (Novel by Alexander Trocchi)


EDITOR: Colin Monie

MUSIC: David Byrne


RUNNING TIME: 93 minutes



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