Young Adam

Downbeat Trocchi adaptation. Humping and pumping but very little sumping on the canals of Scotland.

Released in 2003, certified UK-18. Reviewed on 30 Sep 2003 by Craig Eastman
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pendular /pendyoolar/ adj. swinging to and fro with the motion of a pendulum.

So it is that Ewan McGregor finds time to flash his tallywhacker once more. Young Adam, adapted from the novel by Scottish beat-author Alexander Trocchi, is a bleak, sombre tale of a young unemployed author called Joe (McGregor) who works aboard a barge owned by Ella Gault (Tilda Swinton) and her husband Les (Peter Mullan). Ferrying cargo along the Clyde river, the Atlantic Eve chugs along the waterways as depressingly unwavering in it's course as the lives of it's inhabitants. Everything is hunky dory until one morning Joe and Les pull the dead body of a young woman out of the Clyde, and it immediately becomes apparent, to the viewer if not his colleagues, that Joe knows a sight more about it than he is letting on.

Being an author, nobody notices much when Joe gives a typically involved and detailed description of the young woman's demise, presumably numb to his bohemian rantings. It gradually transpires through a series of flashbacks that the girl, Cathie (Emily Mortimer), was one of Joe's many lovers and had fallen pregnant by the much-aired McGregor Manhood™. A cold and callous little shite, Joe is typically apathetic and turns his back on Cathie, leading to her demise (in a fashion I shall not divulge lest it ruin your enjoyment).

The vast majority of Young Adam's audience will no doubt stem from the press-generated hype surrounding it's frequent sexual interludes. This is something of a shame, as although regular, these scenes are nowhere near as explicit as most would have you believe (especially the bizarre 'custard' incident of which so much has been said). Anyone attending on the promise of an epic shag-fest will be a) disappointed and b) denying themselves the pleasure of a terrifically downbeat atmosphere of doom and despair, as this movie is something of a depressive's delight.

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The majority of the Little McGregor Workout comes about through Joe's seduction of Ella. After some apprehension on her part, Ella and Joe are soon at it like the proverbial rabbits, performing all kinds of barge-buckling manoeuvres whenever Les' back is turned. Unlike many movies with a similar quota of sexual bravado, Young Adam can rest behind the defence that here it is fairly essential to the plot. McGregor's Joe is a smouldering, coldhearted loner who uses women like toilet tissue to cleanse his insatiable libido. A man of few words (and an even more limited repertoire of actions), Joe moves through life like Ella's barge; his destiny carrying him down an unflinching course of self-destruction. Despite the limits of the character's emotional range, McGregor gives as good a performance as is possible in the role, and while not quite the Oscar-baiting stuff of recent reviews it's certainly up there with the young actor's best turns in front of the camera.

You can almost smell the unspoken despair of each sexual coupling, McGregor finally giving the slightest hint of remorse at the trial of Cathie's accused murderer. So withdrawn and unable to cope with his emotions is he that Joe's token gesture to prevent an innocent man from hanging is to slip the judge an anonymous note proclaiming the poor fellow's innocence. It's the first sign of remorse and only the second act of vague humanity we see in the entire film from Joe, his rescuing of Ella and Les' son from drowning the only other example.

McGregor's supporting cast back him up admirably, comprised as they are from reliable Brit character actors. Mullan is his gruff, dependable self as Les, giving his character suitable depth through his actions after discovering his wife's infidelity with Joe. Similarly Emily Mortimer makes the best of a potentially limited role as Cathie, the poor girl smitten by Joe's allure despite his constant reminders that he is "not a guy you want to marry". She copes well with several difficult scenes, the most demeaning of which, the aforementioned 'custard' incident, must have been quite a challenge for the young lass to deal with on set. Likewise Tilda Swinton handles her role with consummate professionalism. Despite looking more like Gollum than ever (and not particularly attractive to be honest), she plays the cold, uncaring female foil to McGregor's Joe well, although with more obvious emotional strain on her character's part.

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Director David Mackenzie steers the movie as Les steers the Atlantic Eve, with a steady hand and an assured knowledge of the character's courses. Purposefully avoiding the opportunity to capitalise on many potential emotional flashpoints, Mackenzie wisely opts to let his characters be as still as the canal surface while the sexual tensions boil away in the murky waters beneath. The result is that many will find Young Adam to be something of a trudge. Anyone expecting the Scottish equivalent of Fatal Attraction or Basic Instinct is going to be sorely disappointed, the film adopting a far more sedate and downbeat approach than either of those films. It's as much about the stillness and atmosphere as the copious fallopian investigations instigated by Little Joe, and as such will not be everyone's cup of tea, least of all those expecting immediate gratification.

The action (or lack thereof) is subtlety underlined by a gentle score from David Byrne of all people, proving unobtrusive yet complimentary to the river-based goings on. There's also some beautiful cinematography that captures the essence of Scotland's canalways superbly, and an audacious shot from above of Joe walking along the barge deck, staying still in frame as the boat moves out of shot. Bravo all involved. In fact the only thing that's unnecessarily framed is Ewan's knob, somehow finding it's way, presumably under contractual obligation, into a scene where it need not and quite easily might not have been seen. It's the only moment of unwanted gratuity in an otherwise capably-handled movie, although I guess we wont hear many of McGregor's female fans complaining.

Young Adam is not going to be appreciated by everyone and rightly so. It's a difficult watch purely because of the bleak outlook shared by it's characters and setting, and let's not forget that Alexander Trocchi didn't exactly write many nursery rhymes. For those prepared, unlike it's main character, to invest some emotional interest in the movie, Young Adam is rewarding and compelling in it's downbeat sensibilities. If on the other hand you're just here to see Ewan's swingin' manhood, I wouldn't bother. It's as brief and exciting as Joe's enjoyment of his sordid interludes.

I award this movie 4 out of 5 Disko units.


Tippy says:-The walls of the screen we saw this in were a wonderful verdant red, lighting placed at locations with both ergonomic and atheistic considerations in mind. The carpeting left much to be desired, but it was at least gratifyingly free from puddles of spilt fizzy pop and crushed popcorn kernels. The fire exits were adequately illuminated and sensibly placed should any evacuation become necessary. I know all of this because this movie bored me so badly the surrounding environment became comparatively riveting. 2/5.

David Mackenzie
Cast list:
Ewan McGregor (Joe)
Tilda Swinton (Ella Gault)
Peter Mullan (Les Gault)
Emily Mortimer (Cathie)