(director/writer: David Mackenzie; screenwriter: from the book “Scottish Beat” by Alexander Trocchi; cinematographer: Giles Nuttgens; editor: Colin Monie; music: David Byrne; cast: Peter Mullan (Les Gault), Tilda Swinton (Ella Gault), Ewan McGregor (Joe Taylor), Emily Mortimer (Cathie Dimly), Jack McElhone (Jim Gault), Therese Bradley (Gwen), Ewan Stewart (Daniel Gordon); Runtime: 98; MPAA Rating: NC-17; producer: Jeremy Thomas; Sony Pictures Classics; 2003-UK)

“I was much impressed with this superbly performed and tightly scripted noirish period drama.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Scottish director David Mackenzie (“The Last Great Wilderness”) helms with much feeling this lean, steamy and moody modern film noir from the 1953 book “Scottish Beat” by British “beat” writer Alexander Trocchi. It’s set in and around the canals between Edinburgh and Glasgow soon after World War II when fuel rationing was the order of the day. Its existential tone is much like Albert Camus’s “The Stranger,” while the location shots reminded me of Jean Vigo’s brilliant L’Atalante. Though differing in aims, they both were lyrical films with the waterprojecting a dreamworldthat sublimely lingers in the characters’ consciousness.

The film centers on an aspiring writer, a taciturn drifter named Joe Taylor (Ewan McGregor), who drops out of regular society and works on a coal barge owned by the downtrodden Ella Gault (Tilda Swinton). Her world-weary husband Les Gault (Peter Mullan) and young son Jim also work on the barge. One day the men fish out of the Clyde River the corpse of an unidentified young woman clad only in a petticoat, who floated down by the docks. A police investigation leads them to believe this is a murder case, and soon discover who the girl is and that she was having an affair with a married plumber (Ewan Stewart). When the police discover that she’s pregnant they arrest the innocent man on a murder charge. Joe, who knows what happened, wrestles with his conscience whether he should come forth and tell the authorities the truth.

The film successfully conveys a disturbing mood as the womanizing laborer interacts with the family, maintaining a friendship with Les and a hot sexual liaison with the raggedy Ella. Joe left his last longtime sexual relationship with an office worker named Cathie Dimly (Emily Mortimer), where he was a kept man, because he didn’t want to be boxed into a conventional life. He most enjoys loafing, reading and fucking, and the sex scenes are explicit giving it “The Last Tango in Paris” look. In one such nude scene shot in flashback of his ex-girlfriend, Joe humiliates Cathie by dumping a custard pie and ketch-up over her body while entering her from the rear.

There’s not much of a plot, but it’s an intensely dark tale about the dramatic consequences the drifter brings to fruition because of his ill-advised actions, selfishness, amoral behavior and inability to face the truth. The young protagonist’s attempt to escape from the world and be carefree seems harder to achieve than he thought, and his brave front soon fades as he becomes disillusioned with his quest.

I was much impressed with this superbly performed and tightly scripted noirish period drama. It had a menacing and honest quality that served its subject matter well, even though it only skims the surface of its projected depths and the sex seems so joyless and mechanical.