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Young Adam

Much controversy has been caused in the States by the new British movie Young Adam. First US distributors were forced to rescind cuts after objections from its main star, then it was assigned the infamously misinterpreted NC-17 “kiss of death” rating. The truth is the intended cuts were overblown pointless prudishness and the rating is the one the movie deserves. Not because it is a movie no one should see, but it’s a movie that was never intended for people under 18 to see, accompanied or not. Something the MPAA could do well to realise about some movies it passed as R recently. But I digress… on with discussing the movie.

Young Adam stars Scottish superstar Ewan McGregor as Joe, a young drifter in 1960s Glasgow who finds himself working aboard a cargo barge running the city’s Clyde river and canals. His work means he lodges aboard the confined space of the barge with the family of his boss Les (Peter Mullan) comprised of wife Ella (Tilda Swinton) and young son Jim (Jack McElhone). Early one morning, Joe and Les find the body of a young woman floating in the river. While Les revels in the gory possibilities of the poor girl’s demise, Joe is much more dismissive and defensive over the incident.

As the story progresses we watch Joe as his relationship with the bored housewife Ella gradually shifts from lodger to lover and it’s impact on those around, meanwhile the grim discovery in the water forces him to reflect on the past and the unfortunate truth about his hidden relationship with the dead girl (Emily Mortimer) and it’s consequences on current events.

David MacKenzie’s debut feature is not a typical melodrama or indeed character study. Much like David Cronenberg’s Spider, more is said through pure visuals and brooding scenes of little dialogue than through a standard narrative analysis. The pacing and tone of the movie often matches that of Ella’s barge and it’s surroundings; slow, deliberate, dank and grey. There are no good or bad people here. No study of morality or who’s right or wrong. This is a simple examination of real life, where bad things can happen to good people and there are never any easy answers to difficult questions. Ex Talking Heads front man David Byrne’s haunting minimalist score only helps to solidify this grim moody world of working class life of 40 years ago.

The performances from all the cast are up to the expected high standard with such a high calibre cast, with Tilda Swinton probably emerging as the best performance purely for a role that could be seen as quite daring and against the considered norm. McGregor isn’t especially standout but gives Joe just enough of a quiet contemplative edge to let us relate to his character and the questions he must confront despite his obvious social outsider status.

Young Adam is certainly not a movie for everyone. Such ponderous and oppressively grim dramas as these seldom are. But at the same time they offer hope to the world that not all new up and coming directors are music video alumni more concerned with flashy editing and catering to the lowest common denominator than telling a story and trying something different. That this movie is the first I’ve reviewed to give me writer’s block only helps reinforce that idea that I’ve finally seen something different and potentially worthwhile. David Mackenzie may be the next Danny Boyle; he is certainly someone worth keeping an eye on.

A final word of warning to those tempted to go see this movie simply for the much hyped “explicit sex” and (seemingly obligatory) scene of McGregor manhood; forget it. While I’m sure many women (and probably some men) may get their jollies from Ewan’s pee-pee peek, it’s very much blink and you’ll miss it, and unless you get turned on by quickies in grimy back alleys and naked middle-aged women with hairy armpits then you’re better off swallowing your pride and renting Tom Spanks in The Ladydrillers from the adult section instead. Because the truth is the sex in Young Adam is as far from the perfect executed soft focus wriggling of Hollywood productions as you can get and to be honest is probably less explicit than say perhaps, Basic Instinct, in context.