'Young Adam': A Murder Mystery's Unhurried Pursuit of the Naked Truth
By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 14, 2004; Page C04
If you long to see more of Ewan McGregor, if you must see a lot of him, I'd suggest you hasten to a theater playing "Young Adam." There, most of Ewan is on display, and what you don't see, take it from me, you wouldn't want to see.
It's the rare NC-17 film that braves the shoals of exhibitor disdain to put in an appearance in the real world. Most are quietly snipped to get the coveted R, and then enjoy a second, bolder existence on DVD. But not "Young Adam." It's the real thing, the full monty, a gen-u-ine bona fee-day NC-17. Don't say you haven't been warned.
The movie behind this brazen display of flesh turns out to be a turgid, murky little art-house melodrama with a serious erotic jones. It plays a little like a collaboration between Hitchcock and Bob Guccione, only not as good.
The film takes off from a Hitchcockian premise. Suppose you find a corpse by pure accident -- and it's your lover. That's the setup. Two Scottish bargemen -- they live on one of those floating platforms and eke out a living hauling cargo along the evidently abundant Glasgow canals -- find the nude body of a young woman in the water. For each (but for different reasons), it's a sexualized experience. The cops are called and for the cruder of the two, Les (Peter Mullan), it's a toot to see his name in the paper the next day and have a brief sense of importance.
But gradually we become aware that something's amiss with his mate, Joe (McGregor). He knows a good deal more about this than he's letting on. Among other results, the discovery seems to set him off on some kind of sexual rampage, and he's soon coupling with just about any female who will have him, while the writer-director David Mackenzie watches with an eye for clinical detail. One of these conquests turns out to be Les's wife, Ella (Tilda Swinton), who lives on the barge with them. The sense of claustrophobia -- these three, plus Ella and Les's son, Jim -- cohabiting intimately in about 11 square feet is palpable.
The movie seems to take its rhythms from the stately progress of the cumbersome barges down the picturesque waterways. It's not in any hurry to get where it's going, as it soon pays out some tantalizing clues in the form of flashbacks that gradually form a picture of Joe and the drowned girl and the consequences of her death and his indifference. It's not very pretty.
This is one of those films that are elegant, erotic, atmospheric and Scottish. Hmm, now there's a combination, and to my ears, much of the dialogue was lost in burr and growl. It's a diversion, well crafted by Mackenzie from a book by Alexander Trocchi, but little more than that.
Young Adam (97 minutes, at area theaters) is rated NC-17 for sexual explicitness.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Ewan McGregor and Tilda Swinton are close in more ways than one in the NC-17 film.
(Neil Davidson -- Sony Pictures Classics)