Young Adam (2003) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski) and Tuna

Scoop's comments in white:

Ewan McGregor says that he uses his big salaries from Hollywood roles to finance his virtually unpaid appearances in sincere independent films. He isn't kidding. The entire budget of this movie must have been far less than Ewan's normal salary, unless he's been moonlighting at a convenience store.

Ewan plays the part of Joe, a drifter who hopes to be a writer, and starts to build his life experiences by working on a canal barge which travels between Edinburgh and Glasgow in the 1950s. The protagonist is an antihero, but not in the sense that Rick is an antihero in Casablanca. He's not simply a cynical outsider who will do the right thing when he needs to, but pretty much of a complete scumbag, a cowardly drifter with no sense of right and wrong.

  • He betrays his employer by sleeping with his wife.
  • Then when the wife becomes his new employer, he betrays her by sleeping with her sister.
  • When a kind man takes him in, he promptly takes the man's wife to bed as soon as the man heads off to work his night shift.
  • He makes no effort to save his pregnant girlfriend from drowning when she falls in the river
  • Then then he sits idly by and watches some poor schmuck get tried for his girlfriend's murder.

He aspires to become a writer, but eventually realizes that he is made to live out a life, not to describe one, so his typewriter meets an appropriate fate.

Although the drifter is not a sympathetic lead character, this film manages to create a fleshed-out look at him and the blue collar lives he affects in Scotland. The tone is not really tragic. There is neither pathos nor bathos, but simply sadness. The background score is minimally intrusive, and the background noises are virtually absent. There are long periods of virtual silence, as you might expect in the films of Bergman or Tarkovsky.

It was an effective move to cast boyish, soft-spoken, handsome Ewan McGregor as the drifter. He gives off an aura of decency that lent some balance to the portrayal, and deepened the sadness because he seemed to be a man who could have achieved far more, could have been better, but always seemed lost. In the final analysis, I felt sympathy for the drifter because he was not a bad person, just a person who wanted to be good but didn't know how, and who wanted happiness as much as any of us, but found it elusive.

As did the other doomed characters around him.

As do we all, from time to time.

David Mackenzie's Young Adam played a very limited arthouse run in North America. You know those commercials that say "coming soon to a theater near you"? Well, this movie did not come to a theater near you - unless you live in the East Village. The British critics, however, went ga-ga over this arty, sexy Scottish noir film based on an existentialist novel by Alexander Trocchi. I like the movie as well. The consistently gloomy period look reinforces the mood of sadness, and makes the film look like it cost far more than it actually did. But I have to warn you that it's genuinely an art film for the Bergman crowd, and definitely not a multiplex crowd pleaser. The one thing that gives it a bit of crossover appeal is that the script is not structured as a drama, but rather as a murder mystery (even though it turns out that nobody is actually murdered). That genre film structure gives the film a "grip" on the audience that a comparably heavy-handed and more straightforward drama might not normally be able to establish.

There is a substantial amount of sex and nudity (see the nudity report to the right). One sex scene is particularly wild. McGregor loses his temper with girlfriend Emily Mortimer when she works a hard day and complains that the only thing he did all day was to make some custard. So he covers her with the custard and some ketchup and other food items, then he canes her behind, and finally takes her from the rear. Pretty steamy stuff.


  • Tilda Swinton - breasts, brief pubes
  • Emily Mortimer - breasts, brief pubes
  • Pauline Turner - full frontal nudity
  • Ewan McGregor - the full monty


Tuna's comments in yellow:

Young Adam (2003) stars Ewan McGregor in a very dark and claustrophobic film set mainly on a river barge in Scotland. Ewan is a hired hand about the barge, owned by Tilda Swinton and operated by her and her husband. As the film opens, Ewan and the husband fish the body of a woman out of the river. The story is told in a combination of  linear narrative, and flashbacks. Since there is no clear indication of when a flashback is happening, the film demands a high degree of focus from its audience.

In the course of the barge trip, Ewan becomes carnally involved with Swinton. Her husband eventually finds out about her infidelity and leaves. Swinton decides that she wants to marry Ewan, but he runs, and quickly. We gradually learn that he knew much more about the dead woman than he at first let on. He becomes even more upset, almost to the point of doing something, when another man is arrested and tried for the murder. We learn that Mortimer and McGregor had a very lusty relationship indeed. Ewan's character is gradually revealed such that, by the end of the film, you understand him, and exactly what happened.

DVD info from Amazon

  • widescreen anamorphic.

It received the dread NC-17, which, in this case, was probably warranted. I am not sure young kids need to see a woman smeared with custard and ketchup, caned, then taken from behind. Sony elected to release it uncut - a move I applaud. McGregor's sexual exploits were very much a required part of the narrative, and hence in no way gratuitous.

Region 2 DVD info from Amazon UK

  • widescreen anamorphic.

  • "making of" documentary

  • soundtrack

I agree with Ebert and Berardinelli that Young Adam is a very well made film, with a story told in an interesting way, and more than enough sex and nudity to spice up what is otherwise a dreary character-driven pace.

 It is a very well made film, but with limited appeal to mass audiences.

The Critics Vote ...

  • General UK consensus: nearly three and a half stars. Mail 6/10, Telegraph 9/10, Independent 8/10, Guardian 8/10, Times 8/10, Sun 8/10, Express 10/10, Mirror 6/10, BBC 5/5, View London 5/5

The People Vote ...

  • IMDB summary. Despite the overwhelming critical endorsement, IMDb voters score it only 6.6/10
  • It was made for about $7 million, but it has yet to recoup even that modest cost. It grossed about a million dollars in the UK, and maybe another million in the rest of Europe.
The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics, or a C- from our system. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or a D on our scale. (Possibly even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. (C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by genre fans, while C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie although genre addicts find it watchable). D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well. Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. We don't score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-.

Based on this description, this is a C+ (both reviewers).  Scoop liked it. Tuna not so much. But we were both impressed by it. It is a powerful movie for lovers of the existential films of Northern Europe, but it is not a mainstream entertainment.

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