In order to introduce Stevi Costa‘s second look at 2003’s Young Adam, I feel that the only way is to quote from Costa’s piece itself: “I can only tell you that even Ewan McGregor’s penis, which is easily my favorite set of genitalia in the world, couldn’t make this film interesting to me.”
As I sat down to re-view Young Adam this week,I made a list of things I remembered about it because, well, I frankly couldn’t remember much about it. I know I saw it because it had Ewan McGregor in it, and that’s also why I’d agreed to re-view it. But I honestly hadn’t thought much about it over the past ten years, so when I asked myself, “What do you remember about this film?” I came up with the following list:
WHAT I REMEMBER:
A red turtleneck sweater
Turns out, I was wrong about the red turtleneck sweater. It’s actually a red half-zippered pullover. But the other two items on that list are definitely, prominently featured in the film. Unfortunately, as I learned on this rewatch, not even the mighty power of Ewan McGregor’s penis can make Young Adam a particularly memorable viewing experience.
The problem is that the plot of the film isn’t actually much of a plot. McGregor’s Joe works on a barge owned by Tilda Swinton’s Ella and captained by her husband Les. Les and Ella’s young son also lives with them. But this doesn’t stop Joe from running his hands up Ella’s thighs under the dinner table, nor does it stop Ella and Joe from having sex below deck while Les steers the vessel through Glasgow’s waterways. (This is probably a metaphor.) Still, even if he’s complicit in an extramarital affair, Joe seems to be a good guy: He rescues Ella’s son when he falls overboard, and he’s obviously helping Ella meet some unmet needs. But we learn through flashbacks that before the barge, Joe was in love with Emily Mortimer’s Cathy, and was the last person to see her alive. It’s Cathy’s body Joe fishes out of the river at the beginning of the film, and the mystery of this woman haunts the barge and bars of Glasgow. Cathy’s death, we learn, was an accident. On the night she revealed her pregnancy to Joe(after they had broken up), she ran after him at the water’s edge, fell in, and sank like a stone. Rather than reporting the accident, Joe tries to cover it up. And when he finds her body, he hides what he knows about Cathy from Les and Ella.
The film moves slowly through these flashbacks (and Joe and Ella’s dirty-steamy affair) as slowly as Les steers the barge down the river. It’s practically plodding along. Some kind of denouement occurs when Les catches Joe and Ella, but even when the affair is brought above decks, nothing really happens. There’s nothing at risk for Joe or for Ella. It’s her barge, so Les leaves. Sure, Joe gets punched in the face, an action he begs Les to take, but that’s it. That’s the entire ramification of the affair plotline.
After Les leaves the barge, Cathy’s murder trial begins, and the film shifts its narrative setting and focus. But even so, it doesn’t get any more interesting. Joe is a ghost in this trial, as he seems to be in much of the film. He sits in the upper balcony of the courthouse and watches Cathy’s former boyfriend—a married man with whom she had an affair between her breakup with Joe and her death—get grilled for a crime he didn’t commit. Even when Les takes the stand to testify about finding Cathy’s body, he doesn’t mention Joe’s name (although Ella angrily spies him in the courtroom). Joe says nothing and does nothing. He simply observes. He very nearly writes an anonymous letter to the court after Cathy’s other lover is sentenced to hanging in an attempt to exonerate the man, but it isn’t clear he sends it. So Joe moves on, and an innocent man dies.
Because Joe speaks so little, and the plot is so slow and internalized, Young Adam seems an odd choice to adapt from novel to film. It’s only during a flashback during Cathy’s murder trial that we learn Joe was a writer before he became a deckhand, and we learn this only tangentially as we see him listening to jazz in the aforementioned red pullover while scribbling in a notebook and making custard . . . which he throws at Cathy when she returns to their flat at the beginning of what becomes a bizarre hate-sex food fight where Cathy ends up getting fucked on all fours while covered in custard, flour, and Worcestershire sauce. I am not sure how I had forgotten about the custard scene, which I’m pretty sure is one of the first sploshing scenes I’d ever seen on film, but I did. Perhaps hate-sex food fights are what Joe writes about? We can’t be sure. But I think we’re meant to understand his utter lack of presence in the narrative as a vestige of his writerliness: Joe observes and records as he moves through public spaces with little consequence to any actions he does take. He seems to be excused from his bad behavior simply because his role is that of the ghostly observer.
I can see how all that would be really interesting in a novel—a brooding protagonist reporting and observing their world but barely interacting in it. But it makes for a pretty boring film. The narrative onscreen feels pointless and inconsequential as a result, and I was left wondering why—other than the promise of Ewan McGregor’s full frontal nudity—I even bothered to re-view the film.
I should have let Erik Jaccard have this one so he could have written something brilliant about Scottish beat novels and working class Glasgow. Erik could have contextualized the hate-sex food-fight in terms of post-war affect or something. But instead I can only tell you that even Ewan McGregor’s penis,which is easily my favorite set of genitalia in the world, couldn’t make this film interesting to me.
I’m going to go watch The Pillow Book instead.
Um, the music in this movie is by David Byrne. HOW DID I NOT REMEMBER THAT? If there’s one thing that is pretty memorable about YoungAdam, it’s Byrne’s score, which is so good that I’m certain it’s been used in trailers for other films.
Real creeped out by Joe’s fragmented viewing of women’s bodies. The camera isolates Joe lifting Cathy’s corpse’s skirt in the same way it shows him sliding his hand under Ella’s.
Fabulous costume piece: Ella’s posh sister’s green tweed jacket, which keeps you looking smart even when you’re getting fucked in an alley by your sister’s lover.