Young Adam

Young Adam


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

A would-be darling of the Edinburgh Film Festival, Young Adam, based on the cult novel by Alexander Trocchi, has received some surprisingly varied criticism. It is, in many ways, a difficult film to like, full of unlikeable characters doing unlikeable things, and awkwardly paced, but this is part of its secret brilliance. Not since Woody Allen's Crimes And Misdemeanours has such a bold attempt been made to explore compulsive behaviour and guilt after the fact. Young Adam also concerns itself with issues surrounding masculine identity, particularly as two of its central characters, Joe (Ewan McGregor) and Les (Peter Mullan) are contrasted.

The story begins after the apparently rootless Joe has taken a job working with Les on the barge belonging to the latter's wife, Ella (Tilda Swinton). One morning, the two men pull the body of a young woman out of the river. Les is proud to have done his bit and curious about the investigation that follows, but Joe is reluctant, taciturn, unable to admit the way he feels about the discovery.

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The affair which he embarks upon with Ella seems scarcely to be the product of any conscious thought. Joe has sex automatically, like eating and sleeping, taking no particular precautions, always ready to run away from the consequences. He is afraid of responsibility, afraid of domestication, haunted by a succession of women whose desperate lives must needs be structured around practical things because of the consequences of their biology. Whilst Les is nagged about his gambling, Joe's compulsions prove far more costly, and can do nothing to resolve his sense of loss. Despite its portrait of what might be a happy-go-lucky, successfully promiscuous young man, Young Adam becomes increasingly painful to watch as its hero fails himself.

Strong sexual content is a necessary part of Young Adam's storyline, but the extent of the sexiness of sex scenes is cautiously judged, illuminating certain characters' emotional distance. This will look a little different to Americans, with full-frontal scenes removed, as if the world hasn't seen McGregor's bits a million times before. The nudity is casual and largely unerotic. What's interesting is how much trouble Mackenzie has gone to to make the beautiful Swinton look dour and badly aged. He's unflattering to most of his performers, which is as it should be, spotlighting the narcissism on which Joe's sexuality hinges.

Perfectly cast and superbly acted all round, with a vibrant pivotal performance from Emily Mortimer, Young Adam is a fine piece of art, but it struggles to be an equally fine piece of entertainment. At times director David Mackenzie seems to mistake pauses for tension and landscape for mood, like Harold Pinter on a bad day, though elsewhere the dialogue is beautifully judged. This is a film which needs to be slow in order to convey the grinding inevitability of Joe's emotional struggle and its denoument, but sometimes it is too slow nonetheless, and it certainly demands patience of its audience. Towards the end, the atmosphere grows thicker. The impression it leaves will linger for a long time.

Reviewed on: 27 Jun 2007
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Rootless drifter working on Scottish canal barge discovers dead woman in the water.
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Angus Wolfe Murray ****1/2

Director: David Mackenzie

Writer: David Mackenzie, based on the book by Alexander Trocchi

Starring: Ewan McGregor, Tilda Swinton, Peter Mullan, Emily Mortimer, Jack McElhone, Therese Bradley, Ewan Stewart, Stuart McQuarrie, Pauline Turner, Alan Cooke

Year: 2003

Runtime: 98 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Country: UK


EIFF 2003

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