YOUNG ADAM

An Illusion review by Joan Ellis


                Don’t take the whole family to “Young Adam.” Denied an “R” rating, Sony’s movie must coast through the festival and art house circuit on NC-17 without a shot at the multiplexes.   An educated guess is that the reason for this is Ewan McGregor’s frontal nudity, the last barrier to fall in what’s acceptable on film.  A less educated guess might be that men probably determine these ratings and just aren’t ready to be measured against their colleagues.

                Three of the finest of today’s actors star in this grim but beautifully crafted movie.  Ewan McGregor plays Joe, an itinerant barge worker living at the moment with the Gault family – Les (Peter Mullan and his wife Ella (Tilda Swinton.)  Joe has just fished a woman’s body from the harbor.  She is Cathie (Emily Mortimer), and as Joe tenderly straightens her slip, we wonder at the source of his tenderness.  We don’t have to wonder for long.

                Joe, you see, is a bit of a loner who doesn’t fit in when the rest of the guys are throwing darts at the pub; he prowls, finds a woman here, a woman there, and beds them quickly.  To his great credit he never even hints at love or commitment, asking only for the pleasure of the moment.  The women he finds – a widow, a bored wife, and especially Ella – live tightly circumscribed lives, and there suddenly in their drabness, is Joe. 

                Ewan McGregor is perfect for this part with his big, handsome head, great hair, and innocent face.  Joe is a man of few words, nearly none actually, and the innocence of his face is so convincing that we wonder if we can possibly believe what we are beginning to see.  Casting a villainous type in the role would have undermined the film entirely.

                The peerless Tilda Swinton conveys both Ella’s dreary hopelessness and her sexual need with typical fearlessness.  Swinton is remarkable as the barge owner who sees Joe as her ticket to a bungalow.  As Cathie, Emily Mortimer is a lovely optimist, a cheerful lover who would have deserved Joe if Joe were what he seemed to be. 

                What is most remarkable is the atmosphere created by director David Mackenzie.  He paints the dreary, repetitive life of the canal coal barges in Glasgow of the 1950s by drenching his landscape in the colors of night.  Whenever the barge breaks through a tunnel into the sun, the brilliant green of the landscape is dazzling.  For the families in this culture, this is it.  And when Joe comes along, his quiet self seems to offer up whatever these unhappy women want to see in him. 

                We see a lot of sex, a lot of nakedness, a cowardly cad – all at a very slow pace that forces us to soak up not only the story but the very dark culture being painted for us.  You may think it’s not for you, but don’t underestimate McGregor, Swinton, and Mortimer.  

 


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