Sometimes a film takes me by surprise. Young Adam is very good—a moody, atmospheric portrait of dead-end lives, with moral overtones drawn from Dostoievski. But in the world of David Mackenzie’s film, from a novel by Alexander Trocchi, no redemption is possible. There is no New Adam.
It is a full film, this, with claustrophobic shots on a small barge with four inhabitants, and mysterious shots of the sea from which a pregnant woman’s corpse is fished out. The corpse is sensuous, as if alive to the touch: an hommage to Eisenstein’s October (1927). Joe, the young laborer who helps fish out the corpse, covers its buttocks and pats them. If the only message of this creepy-crawley scene had been “This guy is horny,” I would have hated the film; but (despite Ewan McGregor’s crude, clumsy performance as Joe) things become more and more interesting and complex. The theme might wither the soul: Nothing works out—not one’s work, sexual relationships, the justice system. This is pessimistic, even defeatist perhaps, but with a full draught of humanity, of the rhythm as well as the pity of realistic lives, of the intolerable beauty through which unhappy lives seem to glide, of predetermined destinies, of a closed cosmos in which human behaviors repeat over and over and over. It is the miracle of art that what should be torture to watch is instead pleasant for us to navigate.
Young Adam is rock-solid, absorbing, and full of sex, and highlighted by further proof that Tilda Swinton is an extraordinary actress. The DVD includes a commentary track that reveals how precisely knowing of the psychological complexity that he has achieved Mackenzie is.
This 2003 film was released here in the States amidst a good deal of controversy because of its NC-17 rating. Yet more proof, this, that I am out of sync: I would have thought that something so humane and compassionate is exactly the kind of film that kids ought to see.
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