American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
Two men and a woman on a barge. No one who has seen Jean Vigo's famous film "L'Atalante" (1934) can watch "Young Adam" without feeling its resonance. There cannot be peace unless the woman or one of the men leaves. In the Vigo film, newlyweds make the barge their occupation and home, and the bride feels pushed aside by the crusty old deckhand (the immortal Michel Simon). In "Young Adam," the chemistry is more lethal. The barge is owned by Ella Gault (Tilda Swinton), who has a loveless marriage with her husband Les (Peter Mullan), and has hired the young and cocky Joe Taylor (Ewan McGregor), who fancies himself a writer.
It is a foregone conclusion that Joe will eventually have sex with Ella, as the barge Atlantic Eve trades on the dank canals between Glasgow and Edinburgh, circa 1960. But that's really not the movie's subject, even though it provides rich opportunities for Mullan, that intense and inward Scotsman, to underplay his rage and suppress his feelings. (At one point, as Les and Ella linger in bed, they hear Les' boots on the deck overhead, and decide, "He's letting us know he's back.") No, the Atlantic Eve is not the setting for adultery so much as for guilt and long silences.
As the film opens, Joe sees the body of a young woman, dressed only in lingerie, floating in the canal. He uses a hook to pull it closer, and Les helps him haul it on board. The police are summoned. It is a drowning, perhaps a suicide. No foul play, apparently.
But Joe knows more about the body than he reveals -- more, much more, than anybody would ever be able to discover, and he reads the papers with interest as it is learned the woman was pregnant and that her boyfriend, a plumber, has been charged with the murder.