Written by Dave Younger
Young Adam (2003, 98 min.), set in drab postwar Glasgow, Scotland, combines the kitchen-sink dramas of late 50s/early 60s northern England with a Hitchcockian tale – what if you discovered your girlfriend floating dead in a river? Throw in explicit full-frontal NC-17 sex (most movies, like Blue Valentine, will do anything to avoid this kiss of death, but Young Adam embraces it; they wanted to cut Ewan McGregor’s junk for the American release, but he fought to keep it in) with the sexually-charged characters of Joe (McGregor), Ella (Tilda Swinton), and Cathie (Emily Mortimer), and you have more than enough angry young men and women to overcome the tedium of being one of the working poor in the grimy, coal-infused landscape of the docks of Glasgow.
The first scene shows us Joe and Les (Peter Mullan, another excellent Scottish actor) fishing a dead woman out of the river. Joe works on a barge owned by Les’s wife Ella and boards with their family which includes a small boy. Les goes down to the local pub to brag about what they found, and is thrilled to find they’re mentioned in the paper, although not by name. Joe’s reaction is completely different: Was that his ex-girlfriend Cathie? He gets steely-eyed intense and propositions Ella. She is so bored with the same-old same-old routine of life aboard a cramped barge that she agrees. They have quick and violent sex (like all the sex here) outside in the cold and drizzle and manage to get back inside before Les returns from the pub.
Lots of flashbacks show us Joe and Cathie’s life as a couple, from their flirtatious meeting on a beach to sadomasochistic sex to their tearful farewell on the dock. Everything is deliberately disjointed and fragmented, as befits this noirish tale, so you get an idea only later about what kind of baggage Joe, an ex-writer, is carrying. Cathie yells at him when she gets home from work and finds he hasn’t done anything all day. This is apparently because he’s passive, but he’s also voracious enough to splatter her with condiments and take her from behind on the floor.
When an innocent man is tried for Cathie’s murder, Joe goes and watches the proceedings, although he feels like he should say something. But he can’t, without implicating himself, so you end up surprised how he attacks the problem. Even after Joe and Ella have broken up – Joe has his way with her sister – Ella goes to the trial, too. You get the feeling that, because Ella is watching, Joe does the right thing. Young Adam becomes Old Adam.
The screen aspect ratio is 2.35:1 Moody and noirish cinematography helps pull off this dark character story. Excellent use of blacks and nice color saturation helps brighten the palette of grim and grimy Scotland. It’s visually engaging with lots of good cuts and segues and inventive camera angles that help offset the dreariness of day-to-day life.
The sound is Dolby Digital 5.1 in two choices: English and French. The feel is quiet desperation, and the score by David Byrne really is amazing for how understated and subtle it is, two words not usually associated with him. He is from Scotland, too, and used the cream of Scottish indie bands to help him out. Much of the time there is just silence, and it helps make this eerie and otherwordly. Aurally very spread-out, the surrounds and subwoofer help to envelop you in this dank noir.
Cast and Crew Commentary: Director David McKenzie, Tilda Swinton, a producer, and one other guy give informative takes on their experiences making the movie.
Director’s Commentary: Director McKenzie walks us through the novel it was based on, and how he tried to be faithful to it. He does a very credible job filling us in on things we should be aware of while we’re watching, such as parallels to L’Atalante.
Extended Scene: This is the first sex scene, between Joe and Ella, a few seconds longer. Hard to figure why they cut anything. The only difference is Ella is a little noisier in this extended cut. I guess that’s tatamount to enjoying it, clearly a no-no. Three minutes long.
Ewan McGregor Original Passage Narration: This is a sample of the narration by McGregor that was originally in the film. Because Young Adam is so noirish, I feel the decision to jettison Joe’s narration was a mistake. Play up your strengths. The example here is stunningly effective. In one of the commentaries, director McKenzie says he took it out because it didn’t work to have Joe narrating the sex scene. I agree! Just take it out of the sex scene and leave it in the rest of the movie. But feelings about narration can be so subjective. (For example, I feel Harrison Ford’s narration in Blade Runner was key to keeping the noir in that movie, and Ridley Scott’s decision to jettison that in his director’s cut significantly damaged the movie. But lots of people disagree with me.) Anyway, Joe’s narration proves he is an incredible writer, which undercuts the plotline of him being a failed writer. Maybe you just lose that plotline. Two minutes long.