On the surface, Joe (Ewan McGregor) is a seemingly normal man who prefers sitting alone reading a novel to having a wild night out at a local pub. By day he works for Les (Peter Mullan) and Ella (Tilda Swinton) on a barge that travels throughout the many streams and canals in Scotland. When we first meet Joe, he and Les are fishing out the naked, dead body of a mysterious woman out of the water. Unsure what to do, they contact the police and when the story makes the evening newspaper, Les begins to boast about his find at the local watering hole. Meanwhile, back on the barge, Joe attempts to seduce the much older woman and his employer. Although she wants nothing to do with him at the start, his charm starts to grow on her and before long the two are conducting a love affair right underneath Les's prying eyes. As the affair becomes more and more involving, the two become more passionate with one another and before long it's turned into a sex-filled extravaganza that occurs each and every time her husband leaves the barge. During all of this, the investigation into the mysterious woman's death intensifies and it comes out that Joe has some skeletons in his closet, and through a series of flashbacks we learn of his one-time relationship with the dead girl Kathie (Emily Mortimer). Meanwhile, Ella decides to leave Les but just before she can do it, Joe turns his attention to Ella's widowed younger sister Gwen (Therease Bradley). All this occurs as the investigation takes an unsettling and unexpected turn.
Young Adam is directed by David MacKenzie and takes good advantage of the Scottish locales used in the film. The tone of the film is bleak and given the situations and events that transpire, the gray and green locations add to the film's atmospheric and unsettling tone. Most of the film takes place in dimly lit interiors, which echo the characters' moods and feelings. The screenplay, also written by director MacKenzie and based on the novel of the same name by Alexander Trocchi, is very much a morality tale told through the thriller format and genre. It's a thriller in the sense that it contains the standard mystery elements, while on a deeper level it is a comment on society and the act of womanizing and infidelity. MacKenzie's characters are well drawn and fleshed out, with the film's flashback and flash-forward narrative becoming easier to follow as more and more details about the character of Joe are revealed.
Most of the coverage Young Adam has been receiving in mainstream media outlets has to do with the fact that the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) had originally classified the film with the dreaded "NC-17" rating. The NC-17 rating severely limits a film's commercial possibilities as a number of US-based theater chains refuse to carry that product. Upon receiving that rating, most studios bow to the pressure and recut the feature to gain the more viewer friendly "R". This film's US distributor, Sony Pictures Classics, has instead decided to let this film be seen in its uncut glory, a move which will limit its audience in that country. The film does contain a fair bit of nudity, including a full frontal glance at Ewan McGregor, but for the most part it's one of those features like Monster's Ball where the nudity is not titillating but more unnerving given the situations occurring on screen. The nudity is not crammed in to try and appeal to youngsters and the male demographic. It instead serves a purpose in relation to the story. That being said, the inclusion of the male nudity was rather unneeded and certainly could have been removed. It's my best guess that was one of the deciding factors in the film's final MPAA rating.
Young Adam is a character-driven piece of filmmaking as opposed to a plot-based one, and as such the casting becomes of even more importance. Given the personal nature of the story, it comes as no surprise that the film's cast is rather small. Ewan McGregor has the lead role of Joe, a mysterious roamer whose best relationships with women have been anything but long term. McGregor, who's shown his comedic side in films like Down with Love and Moulin Rouge, as well as his action-adventure side in the Star Wars prequels, does equally well with this complex and interesting character. The Joe we see at the beginning of the film is vastly different from the Joe we know at the end, and McGregor carries the film on his shoulders. In the supporting role of Les we have Peter Mullan, a very capable British actor whose gruff and silent Les is the perfect counter match to the womanizing Joe. Moving to the female roles, we have Tilda Swinton and Emily Mortimer, who both hold their own with their vastly different and strongly-written female roles. Still, hands down, this is Ewan McGregor's film.
One of the problems facing Young Adam here in Canada as well as the United States is that it's the type of film that doesn't do terribly well at the box office. It's a different breed of thriller, and that's the more personal, complex mind game which doesn't end in the suspected way and leave countless red herrings before resolving itself neatly. The question it asks isn't "Whodunit?" but "What really happened?", and that, combined with the film's daring and frank sexuality, will harm its potential for making money. However, looking at it from a purely artistic point of view, the film is a strong character study and a compelling thriller. If you're looking for something more than a typical popcorn movie, then this would make for a good choice. That said, it's slow-moving and methodical, and certainly not a light-weight movie. A conditional recommendation goes to this Young Adam.
Mark McLeod has always loved film. In addition to his roles with ShowbizMonkeys.com, Mark also works on many film promotion projects in Vancouver, BC, through his company, Mark McLeod PR.