Young Adam

Young Adam
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Everyone has a past. Everyone has a secret.
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A young drifter working on a river barge disrupts his employers' lives while hiding the fact that he knows more about a dead woman found in the river than he admits.

Title:Young Adam
Release Date:September 26, 2003
MPAA Rating:R
Genres:Drama, Thriller, Crime, Romance
Production Co.:Recorded Picture Company (RPC)
Production Countries:France, United Kingdom
Director:David Mackenzie
Casts:, , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Plot Keywords:individual, scotland, adultery, glasgow, river, boat, court case, dying and death, author, pregnancy, extramarital affair

Young Adam Reviews

  • Subtle, near great, not for everyone.
    by Grape Crusher on 17 September 2004

    102 out of 119 people found the following review useful:

    A thoughtful, unapologetic and non judgmental character study of Joe, one man, one distinctly unique yet common man. It is presented in the context of a mystery, but this is no mystery thriller. Thrill seekers, go elsewhere.

    If you crave action, dialog, explanations and clear resolutions to a plot, I suggest you avoid this film. If you are fascinated by human complexity, admire beautifully crafted film-making, and can think and observe for yourself, this may be a rewarding experience for you. If you love and understand great acting you must see this film.

    It is exquisitely filmed, in an understated and confident manner, using hue and tint as artfully as any great painter. Joe lives in a drab and uninspiring world, mostly of interiors; tight, constricted places, where the inhabitants are caged too closely, too much ever present in each other's spaces. When we are occasionally brought out into the world at large, this tight confining world is often seen to be surrounded by a distant, unreachable beauty. There are subtly beautiful panoramas of the lush greenness of Scotland off in the distance, out of reach of Joe, of all the people of his world.

    The structure, the editing, the weaving of time present and time past is without conceit. There is no "look at how cleverly I did that transition" cutting. It is a perfect representation of editing unseen, unnoticed, the mark of brilliant editing. Everything comes together, simply and without explanation. Characters are presented simply, without prelude. Events occur, without justification. You must think and observe for yourself. If there are conclusions to be made, they must be yours.

    If for no other reason, see this film to experience Ewan McGregor: He has been a reasonably attractive and adequate performer, in mostly rather forgettable productions, until now. Here he suddenly emerges as an actor of astounding depth and complexity, inhabiting, living, revealing another soul. Without any reservation this is a great performance. His subtlety, his inner directed creation of a complete individual, is simply remarkable. It is a complete, compelling, always true performance. You cannot look away from Joe. You must follow him, know him. Do you know him? Can you ever really know him?

    The plot, what little of it there is, unfolds through character and behavior, with a minimum of dialog. There is much complete silence in this film. The score is understated, never telegraphing what you are supposed to feel or think. Indeed, I doubt that there is an answer to any question here. Who is Joe? What is Joe? That is not the point.

    Here is Joe. This is what he is, this is what he has done. What will he do now? There is a quiet suspense, never quite gratified, which begins with the very first frame,a corpse, gently floating, photographed darkly, from below, so dark there is no face. A deceased, faceless female human being.

    Joe's is the first face we see. That first glimpse of his eyes, told me that nothing would be what it seemed in this film. Joe sees something we do not see. So begins the mystery.

    Nothing is jarring, nothing is false. Life is simply never quite what we think it is. Make no mistake. There is a real mystery here to be revealed. Not a contrived, plot dependent series of revelations. It is the unpeeling of the layers of a human being.

    Much has been mentioned in this forum about the frequent sex scenes. They are achingly non-erotic, distanced and cold, and ultimately only functional. It is a passionless, desperate, mutually using and abusing kind of sex. Only one scene has heat. And that scene is not really sex. It is frustration, anger, vengeance, humiliation and desperation. This scene is truly horrible, truly frightening and truly revelatory.

    I haven't told you much about the plot. That is deliberate. The plot works. It reveals the character. The progression of events is true, often surprising, but never false, never contrived. If you need to be told what is happening and why, this is not for you.

    If you love great acting, by all involved, and appreciate the crafts and arts of film construction, I highly recommend "Young Adam".

    (I have one question for anyone out there who might have a feasible answer: the title confounds me. There is no Adam. Nor is there any reference to an Adam. I could draw no path to or from Genesis. So why is this called "Young Adam"?)

  • Adam and Eve ... without the Tree.
    by Andy (film-critic) on 26 September 2004

    79 out of 97 people found the following review useful:

    What an emotionless portrayal of an emotionless man. Ewan yet again proves that he is a force in both the Hollywood community and in the independent forum. Not only for having the bravery to go against American cliché and fight to keep his full frontal nudity in the film, but also for having the gumption to take this role. This is not your average character. Joe is not your normal 'hero'. In fact, I would go so far as to say that he represents all of us. He is, sadly, our 'hero'. Joe (and Ewan portrays this perfectly) is constantly looking for happiness and acceptance, but somehow cannot find it due to the sexual urges that he has. It is interesting to see him want to have emotion, but yet have no issues with sleeping with another man's wife. This is a story of maturity for Joe, but sadly we do not ever see it. When I was watching this film I was continually thinking of the film Alfie (not the new release, but the older) in which a man embarks on several relationships and ultimately ends up with nothing. That is very similar to the story that we have here, only Young Adam is much grittier and darker … and, well, more explicit.

    So many times in cinema we watch two actors give heartbreaking performances on screen, but just do not have the chemistry needed to really pull together those intense sex scenes. That is not the case here. The chemistry and raw emotion between Ewan and Tilda Swinton is phenomenal. I have not seen a better match up in cinema in a long time. This successfully added that extra intensity to their moments of glory. I was able to feel and see their emotion and passion for each other on the screen. It was exactly what this film needed to reach the next level.

    I know this story is based off a book, but I felt that director David Mackenzie did a fantastic job of setting the mood and the scenes. He amazingly built this sense of claustrophobia that surrounded Joe from not only inside the boat, but also under the truck and in the second apartment. There was even that feeling at the trial. This claustrophobia is one of the reasons why Joe never stays in one place for very long. While some will argue that he is nothing more than a heartless womanizer and a coward, I saw him as a tragic spirit searching for the lifelong happiness that he could never find. His conscious was too heavy on him to ever find that perfect place. Mackenzie allowed Ewan to find this character, and this powerful drama was transformed well into the screen.

    Finally, I would like to add that Ewan would not have been worth seeing in this film if it wasn't for the impressive Tilda Swinton who is seemingly in everything lately and gives nothing less than 110%. I have not seen anything that she has been in that was anything below good. She is our next Oscar winner and one of those actresses that are not afraid to get dirty. Her portrayal of Ella is no different. While others would have simply just played the part, Swinton creates the part and gives this film the backbone that it deserves. She nearly steals every scene from Ewan, and that is impressive.

    Overall, Young Adam is a deeply disturbing and depressing film that is not for everyone, but will be enjoyed by those that are fans of this genre.

    Grade: **** out of *****

  • Relentless character study of a man on the run
    by paulekert on 14 November 2004

    55 out of 71 people found the following review useful:

    The films focus on translating the novels first person perspective is clearly an obsession for this director. Never is the audiences attention allowed outside of Joe's point of view. We see only what he sees, we hear nothing more and we remember his life in little snatches, moments of dark disgusting and secret clarity he keeps from the world.

    The film starts with a corpse, a barely dressed woman floating in the Clyde that is fished out by Joe; a young man working the barges for reasons that are not immediately clear. This brutal beginning in which we see Joe lay a tender hand on the cold dead flesh of the girl begins the film with a level of tension that rarely leaves the screen. Through his actions and - more importantly - his inactions we peel away the outer layers of a man on the run from himself, from responsibility and from guilt. We see him commit two murders by mission of inaction and we see him quietly dealing with that in one last lingering shot that tells us he will never change.

    Joe is sexually driven to destroy life around him and he uses sex as a weapon against himself and against the possibility of settling or creating a future. He could be a writer, but he lacks the courage to read his own work. He could be a father, but he cannot face the thought of commitment. He could be a lover, but he makes love to women only as a means to an end, rejecting and pushing them away once the act is completed.

    And this is the film in a nutshell. A relentless character study of an unpleasant man who punishes those around him for his own failings. Yes there is gratuitous sex in this film, but it has its place, it defines the moments of change in everyone else's lives while underlining the static character of Joe, played with utter brilliance by Ewen McGregor. The sex is cold, rather than erotic, reflecting the characters contempt for those he uses. Without the detailed sex scenes the film would be less than it is, but audiences expected to be titillated will come away disappointed.

    Not without flaws this film has that perplexing title and a scene in which Joe beats his girlfriend after covering her with custard. The scene is alien to both the film and the character of Joe who gives no indication of being violent, rather a man that will walk out on a problem rather than face the awful possibility of confrontation. In fact Ewen McGregor seems embarrassed to play this scene, as though he too cannot link this outburst to the character he is playing.

    But this minor quibble apart the film remains an artistically shot work, played with brilliance by everyone. Its rare to see a film where the whole cast are brilliant, where the script is clearly cut and the direction thought through. The visual aspect of the film is also tremendous with each shot being laid out in front of us like a painting, a wondrous work of art that moves and flows to show us the 60's post war Brittan with utter clarity.

    Hollywood please take note.

  • A patient, thoughtful film for patient, thoughtful viewers
    by Adam Whyte ( on 13 August 2003

    35 out of 47 people found the following review useful:

    `Young Adam,' the new film from David Mackenzie, begins with an image that it is worth remembering throughout the film, and that a lot of people will overlook. We are shown a swan swimming along a canal from above, looking, as swans do, elegant and calm, and then we see the swan from under the water, its feet flapping furiously. I was reminded of an early shot in `Blue Velvet' where the camera moves through the grass to the bugs and insects underneath – suggesting things are uglier than they appear - and one at the start of `Lantana,' which moved through a plant that turns out to be more complicated than it seemed. In `Young Adam,' the image was similar: the contrast between above and below the surface. The image did not suggest that one was more ugly than the other, or that one was more complicated; just that they are different.

    This brief but significant image is followed by one of a dead body floating in the canal, which is fished out by Joe, a young worker on a barge in Glasgow, and Les, his employer. Les has a family consisting of a wife, Ella, and their son, Jim. Simple enough. On the surface. We learn quickly that, right under Les's nose, Joe and Ella are having an affair. The early sex scenes in the film – there are many – follow a pattern; Joe approaches Ella, she says something suggesting she is not interested, but her body itself offers no resistance. She is bored with Les, and gives in too easily to Joe (the concept of giving in to temptation is perhaps the key to the film's name).

    The film unfolds slowly, patiently, and in unexpected ways. The body at the start turns out to be of greater significance than we may have suspected. Joe does not restrict himself, sexually, to Ella. He uses sex as a way to add some colour to his otherwise pretty sad life, although he does not seem to get any great deal of pleasure from it. In flashback, we learn of Joe's old girlfriend, Cathie, who did, it would seem, love him on a more than physical level (we are not sure if he feels the same way about her, and he probably isn't either). They share scenes of affection and scenes of bitterness, including one that I will only describe as almost ridiculously kinky. That's one of those scenes where I was left unsure how I was supposed to feel; unsure whether the characters were enjoying themselves or whether they were finding a way to express their rage.

    In a film where the plot moves slowly and rarely hits anything big, the attention and care of the audience depends on the script and the actors. The script is curious; the film's dialogue is often so dull that I could only think that this is the way people talk in real life, not in the movies. That, though, is not a criticism, especially when you consider the performances. Joe is played by Ewan McGregor, and this may be his best performance yet. It's certainly his most subtle, so much so that some audience members may be unimpressed by it, forgetting that it's sometimes most difficult for an actor to reserve emotions and still be a three dimensional character. He certainly is an interesting character, who surprised me constantly. We learn that he reads a lot, he once tried writing – and failed, using his writing time to make custard, leading to the afore-mentioned kinky scene… but I'll let you discover that for yourself – and that he wants (or wanted) to go to China.

    Tilda Swinton plays Ella as a typical wife of the time – the film is set in the '50s – doing things that are perhaps not so typical, i.e. the relationship with Joe. Her habit of asking Joe if he wants some tea at awkward times gives the film a very slight edge of humour. Her husband, Les, is played by Peter Mullan. When he finds out about the affair, his character acts true to himself, rather than to the conventions of scenes about husbands finding out about their wives' affairs.

    These characters do not express a great deal of emotion, and when they do, it is unexpected, and makes us reconsider the characters once more (such as a scene where Ella and Joe, rather cruelly, laugh together at the misfortune of Les). The film is also shot with patience and care, with a lot of scenes in the dark, and a lot of shots using a haunting symmetry, as when the barge is slowly consumed by a dark tunnel. It is not ugly, nor flashy, but right for the material. `Young Adam' is a patient, thoughtful film, for patient, thoughtful viewers. Shots sometimes linger on characters for a while, and some people may find themselves fidgeting, others trying to work out what is going on in the characters' heads, below the surface.

    The film ends somewhat abruptly, but it is perhaps the best climax the film could have. Alternatives would have Joe do a far, far better thing than he has ever done, which would be unlikely and unrealistic; or a more neat, happier ending. I prefer this ending's ambiguity. The whole film is ambiguous, and so are the characters. They are stuck in dull lives, not heading anywhere, not moving. And that is where we leave them.

    ****1/2 (out of 5)

  • Quietly Sexually Charged
    by Gene Crokus on 31 May 2004

    33 out of 44 people found the following review useful:

    One of the more quietly desperate films of recent past, Young Adam is an interesting study of lower working class characters - working poor, perhaps – set against an idyllic Scotland river life we have probably never seen. That working barges ply streams with bridges so narrow that crew must guide the craft along by kicking the tunnel-like sides of passage and canals and rivers are so pastorally picturesque is an awfully artful examination of a simpler time.

    Joe (Ewan McGregor), a hired hand laboring on a barge-of-all-trades is the bad-boy promiscuous lover of any and all girls within contact. Torrid sex with any and all of them is his single-minded purpose, we gather at first. But we quickly find he 1.) is or was a writer – (failed or perhaps more correctly never-started) 2) is linked to a body found in a river and 3) is seemingly incapable of or devoid of emotion. But we are going to alter some our judgments of Joe as more is revealed.

    Sexual promiscuity confined to abrupt, even relentless encounters is the main character's focus even though we know it is as unfeelingly given as it seems to be received. In one encounter, nearly violent in its depiction, we cannot see the face of his partner as she cries (or is she laughing?). Interestingly lit, we marvel at this singularly stark depiction of lust. Ella (Tilda Swinton) and her husband Les (Peter Mullan) have employed Joe on their barge and it is not long before we see how Joe has changed the dynamic in the marriage. It is with Les that Joe recovers the body of a woman floating in the river. Curiously Joe cannot manage the use of a boat hook to snare the woman's body; Les has to take over.

    The story becomes one of determining who the woman is and how she fits into the story. Through flashbacks we see a disturbing development as as the police investigation of the dead woman ensues; we continue to follow this thread through the course of the film.

    The music chosen for the film is unmemorable, but that may serve us well in that it is never a distraction. Time passes during the course of the story, but it could be a week, perhaps six months.

    An interesting film, the title has been bandied about for its Biblical reference but reveals little about the matters at hand. In the final analysis the only surprise found in the movie is when a prominent figure merely disappears; consistent with the tempo, it is a profoundly quiet moment. Disturbing at every turn, this is a film charged with raw sexuality and should be seen to appreciate naturalistic film.

  • Hail Ewan McGregor!
    by hellbetty on 17 September 2004

    36 out of 52 people found the following review useful:

    Okay, this film isn't for everyone. A little dreary, a little bleak, and the love scenes weren't always attractive, but something in the dark simplicity got me.

    McGregor is incredibly versatile, I didn't think once of the bohemian poet Christian, or of Obi Wan... he's taken on an unlikeable character with a slow moving plot and pulled it off beautifully.

    Tilda Swinton plays the antithesis of a Hollywood seductress, which makes some of the love scenes uncomfortable, but refreshing. The acting, as a whole, is the entire film. The action between characters is subtle and intense, and although I may be biased as an Ewan fan, I thought it was perfect for a dark, rainy night!

  • More is said in silence than with dialogue
    by Harry T. Yung ( on 2 February 2004

    29 out of 39 people found the following review useful:

    Spoiler warning !!

    Although the audience may not realise it initially, this film is carefully constructed with two story lines, one of which is through flashbacks that blend so seamlessly with the 'present' that it feels like it's running in parallel. As well, the director is in no hurry to give the audience everything all at once. He lets the flashback story seep through the screen in its good time. However, he does plant along the way plenty of details that may seem a little strange but make perfect sense as the story unfolds. The best example is at the very beginning. Joe (Ewan McGregor) and his employer Les (Peter Mullan) fish a woman's dead body form the Glasgow-Edinburgh canal which their barge is working. In the same evening, when they are having supper in the cabin with Les' wife Ella (Tilda Swinton) and little boy, Les asks Joe if he thinks that it's murder. Joe breaks out into an almost poetic description of what he thinks has happened, that the woman committed suicide. This near-monologue is totally out of character with lowly barge hand Joe, until two things are revealed later: Joe the writer (or his aspiration to be one), and his relationship with the dead woman.

    Not only the past, but even the present, is revealed ever so gradually. As the sexual liaison between Joe and Ella develops, we are under the impression that Ella is very much of an abused (though not physically or violently) wife totally under the control of her husband. It isn't until Les confronting Joe on the deck that we see an unexpected turn of events, with Les' short, crisp announcement of 'It's her barge'. Although Les has never been exactly a model husband, it turns out that Ella is the real boss, in a very literal sense. We now see the tough side of Ella. When Les packs his things and leaves, wondering when he can see his son who is now at boarding school, we can't help but feel a little sympathy for him.

    The film is certainly not made to please the mainstream audience. First, on the practical side, it does not care about political correctness, and shows cigarette smoking scenes in abundance. The film is shot with a general tone of depressing gloominess, with a few well placed out-focused scenes, the most noticeable being the ending scene with Joe walking away from the river. Yet, there is a melancholic beauty in the sometimes grainy photography. At the very beginning, the long-range shot of the dock and background scenery is so beautifully framed that it can easily win a price at a photography contest. Equally melancholic is the general use of the cello in background music. Sound off is not used that much. In fact I only recall one, the sound of buses and other street vehicles, cutting from Joe with Ella in bed at the cabin of the barge to a flashback of a busy street scene of his re-encounter with his ex-girlfriend Cathie (Emily Mortimer). The motif of the hand mirror inscribed with loving words from Cathie to Joe is, however, slightly over-used.

    As to my summary line, all of the more subtle exchanges in the film are made in silence, rather than with dialogue. The two best examples are of course Joe's seduction of Ella and his first encounter with Cathy (in that order in the film, but in reverse order chronologically). There is of course dialogue but by the time it gets to the dialogue, the parties have already established an understanding beyond words.

    One reviewer makes an insightful comparison of Joe to Camus' Outsider. Indeed, rather than being portrayed as an irresponsible libertine, Joe is shown as a confused outsider, often driven by his own physical desire, but not entirely without sensibility. This persona is echoed by the title Young Adam, still young but post-Garden of Eden, tossed into a cheerless world and doomed to an endless exile.

    The acting is first class all around. McGreagor shows that he is made of sterner stuff than needed for a light-sabre-happy Obi-wan Kenobi or a love-sick Christian. Swinton works the layers of Ella amazingly well, first the passive, guilt-troubled wife (particularly at the second liaison when Joe breaks the lamp) then the liberated woman temporarily carried away with ideas of divorce and remarriage, and finally very quickly coming down to earth again. More easily overlooked is Mullan playing the cockolded husband, maybe not to the stupendous height of the gentleman at Camelot, but with his own grass-root poignancy. Mortimer's role may not be as demanding as the other three's, but her competent portrayal of Cathie's endearing young charm is quite necessary to make Joe's subsequent remorse convincing.

    Young Adam is not for everybody, but definitely a marvellous cinematic experience to those with the capacity to appreciate.

  • Well-crafted film with strong performances and a pervading, restrained sadness that echoes its Beat heritage.
    by Colette Corr on 22 December 2004

    25 out of 36 people found the following review useful:

    Young Adam is a powerful and atmospheric drama set on the canals between Glasgow and Edinburgh during the 1950s.

    Ewan McGregor is Joe, a drifter working on a barge, when he and his boss find a body in the canal. As he begins an affair with the bargeman's wife (Tilda Swinton), we find out more about his previous relationship with the drowned woman (Emily Mortimer).

    Adapted from the novel by Scottish Beat writer Alexander Trocchi, Young Adam is, in some ways, a kitchen sink drama – a vivid picture of working class life in its unpleasant reality. One of the best examples of this type of film is Room at the Top (1959). But Young Adam has existentialist overtones: Joe is alienated and passive, and not only do his numerous sexual couplings offer him little pleasure, but in rejecting the only thing that could redeem him, he condemns himself to a meaningless life. This might sound too depressing, but screenwriter and director David Mackenzie gives the film great depth and sensuality. Very interesting. ****/***** stars.

  • A jewel at the coal face
    by Chris_Docker on 13 August 2003

    24 out of 36 people found the following review useful:

    Dark, bleak and brooding, Young Adam is a film charged with unexploded tension throughout. Ewan McGregor and Tilda Swinton are superb in the lead roles, conveying much in unspoken guilt as barge hand McGregor engages in an ill-advised affair with his boss's wife. The body of a dead woman appearing in the Clyde leads to a trail of unravelling that leaves a queasy feeling in the stomach right to the very end of the film (and only then do we realise the significance of the title).

    Set in 1950s Glasgow this sombre recreation is a testament to Scottish art house film making (even if they did have to go abroad for much of the funding). The raw sexuality in the grittiest of surroundings is transformed by aesthetic cinematography into explosive beauty as we explore the innermost drives of the characters and work through their dilemmas with them.

  • A measure of guilt
    by rosscinema on 27 October 2004

    11 out of 16 people found the following review useful:

    This film is based on the novel by Alexander Trocchi and those that have read it may find more insight to certain scenes while others may consider this a let down but my own personal view is that it's an interesting film about cynical characters that still feel guilt about their own actions. Story takes place in the early 1960's in Scotland where we see three characters and a small boy living and working on a river barge. Joe Taylor (Ewan McGregor) works for Les Gault (Peter Mullan) who's married to Ella (Tilda Swinton) and they work and live on their barge Atlantic Eve going back and forth from Edinburgh to Glasgow. One day Joe and Les fish the body of a woman out of the river and call the police who take her away but the authorities have a difficult time figuring out who she is and how she ended up in the river.

    *****SPOILER ALERT*****

    Joe and Ella start an affair but it doesn't take long before Les finds out and since the barge is owned by Ella it's Les who moves out but while all this is going on the police have found out that the woman in the river has been identified and was dating a married plummer who is now on trial for murder. What everyone doesn't know is that Joe knows the woman and her name is Cathie (Emily Mortimer) and he knows how she died but he doesn't tell anyone the circumstances that could free the man on trial.

    Directed by David Mackenzie this intriguing little film is reminiscent of the film noir efforts of the 1940's and 1950's although with all the sex and nudity it's certainly one that is played for modern art house audiences. The cast is exceptional and both McGregor and Swinton have built their impressive careers by being able to play such diverse roles and this is no exception. Mullan with his terrific face is one of those great characters actors who never gives a bad performance and he appears born to play a tough guy who works on a river barge. On the surface the story for this film has it's characters behaving like cold hearted cynics incapable of any type of sorrow or pity for others but if you take a good look what this film really is about is unrelenting guilt. Joe does feel guilt for his actions and Ella for her husband Les and the three of them are compelled by the trial of the plummer. Even though their guilt is stemmed for different reasons it seems to bring them to the same place but the film shows that not everyone acts out on their guilt for moral reasons. It's a hard story about tough skinned characters who seem at odds about their morality and that's what makes this film so intriguing.

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