Nobody's perfect. But some people are more imperfect than others. In Young Adam, Ewan McGregor portrays a drifter whose imperfections lead to the death of a former girlfriend and an innocent man's arrest for murder. A candidate for the feel-bad movie of the year, this murky but well-made drama maintains its somber mood from the opening shot of a woman's corpse floating in the river to its foggy ending along that same body of water. Even the film's graphic sex scenes appear bathed in a dark and disturbing aura.
Carrying the dreaded "NC-17" rating, Young Adam is filled with sex -- but none of it romantic. In fact, one sequence comes across as quite brutal. McGregor's character preys on women. When he makes eye contact, they get the message. As the film begins, McGregor is working on a coal barge for a husband and wife played by Peter Mullan and Tilda Swinton. It doesn't take long before the sullen, unhappy wife abandons herself to the handsome young drifter. Swinton and McGregor, both totally convincing here, steal moments together, becoming more and more daring as each day goes by. Excruciating suspense builds as we expect the husband to discover their affair.
What goes around comes around, so the old saying goes. Soon McGregor engages in another sexual dalliance, which infuriates Swinton. And the identity of the dead woman from the opening scene causes additional problems for McGregor. Shall he reveal what really happened, thereby saving an innocent man? After all, he's shown courage before by jumping into the river to rescue Swinton's young son. Will he do the right thing and save his own soul?
Based on Alexander Trocchi's novel, Young Adam left me with a feeling of despair. And yet, I marveled at the film's success in creating this mood and at the haunting performances by McGregor and Swinton. Is there any type of role McGregor can't play effectively? He certainly seems game for anything on screen -- singing with Nicole Kidman in Moulin Rouge, parodying Rock Hudson in Down with Love, telling tall tales in Big Fish, etc. As for Swinton (The Deep End), she impresses me with her unusual screen presence (a blending of the best of Meryl Streep and Cate Blanchett) and her ability to make the characters she plays seem like real human beings.
Set in 1950s Glasgow, Young Adam contains a bit of dialogue that's hard to understand because of Scottish accents -- a minor complaint about a movie with as much going for it as this one. Still, I'm planning to watch Down with Love again as soon as possible. I definitely need some cheering up now.
(Released by Sony Pictures Classics and rated "NC-17.")
Read Betty Jo's interview with Tilda Swinton.