WHAT'S IT ALL ABOUT?
A subtly fascinating period noir, David Mackenzie's Young Adam is a meditative, character-focused film that burrows quite effectively beneath your skin, chilling you as you discover more and more about the casual moral bankruptcy of its central character. It's the kind of fearless, quiet mystery yarn that requires your patience as a viewer but rewards you with a haunting psychological payoff. The movie is also filled with sweaty, grimy sex and genuine, down-and-dirty eroticism.
And yet the DVD arrives in a cloud of controversy. Stamped in theaters with the insufficiently supported NC-17 rating, Young Adam arrives on DVD stamped with an R rating. The film has been cut to achieve the less restrictive rating, but apparently the single NC-17-worthy sequence—a scene of oral sex performed on a woman—has been relegated to the disc's Special Features section. In the film itself, you still get a good look at Ewan McGregor's uncircumcised willie, and you still get lots of full-frontal nudity from both involved actresses. So, I ask, What's the difference between having the original cut of the film intact on this DVD and relegating one naughty sequence to somewhere else on the disc? I can't find information about whether further cuts were made to the DVD version of Young Adam, but the decision to simply move the sequence strikes me as Blockbuster/Wal-Mart-inspired lunacy.
The film begins on a bleak morning, perhaps 40 years ago, in Scotland. Joe Taylor (McGregor), a soft-spoken wanderer who's currently employed on a barge piloted by Les (Peter Mullan, of Session 9) and Ella (Tilda Swinton, of The Deep End) Gault, notices a lingerie-clad female corpse floating near the barge. Joe and Les contact the authorities, and the body is taken away, but Joe seems subtly affected by the incident. Soon, as the barge goes about its age-old business, ponderously navigating the narrow canals between Edinburgh and Glasgow, we find there's more to Joe than his bland surface might suggest. As he begins seducing the hard, disillusioned Ella, we learn, in an extended series of flashbacks, about a stormy relationship shared with a woman named Cathie (Emily Mortimer). And it's not long before the film is drenched in sex, both in the present and in the past. It seems Joe can think of nothing else, and his flesh-obsessed actions seem tied directly to the discovery of the body and the investigation about who allegedly committed the murder.
Shot on location in Scotland, aboard an actual barge, Young Adam approaches its story and characters claustrophobically. It often seems as if we're embedded inside Joe's skull as we watch his actions play out, as if we're privy to a whispered, monotone voiceover that isn't actually there. The Scotland setting is dreary and cloudy, contributing excellently to the mood and pace of the film, as well as Joe's murky façade. Young Adam is most certainly a film about character—it's not exactly filled with explosions and spectacle. It requires you to pay attention to its details and make sense of its nonlinear progression of its plot. (The screenplay is written by Mackenzie, based on the novel by Alexander Trocchi.) Nevertheless, it's rewarding in the way a good mystery novel is, one you might curl up with on a dark, quiet night. And the film ends on a chilling note of moral horror that manages to leave you thinking about the film, and Joe, long after the end credits roll.
Young Adam wouldn't be nearly as effective as it is without the fearless performances of its cast. McGregor proves to be a powerful internal actor in this role, and Mullan exudes period gruffness. Swinton is open and brave with her body as well as her soul, diving headlong into a strong role that asks a tremendous lot of its performer. And gorgeous Mortimer is a ray of troubled sunshine amidst the ghastly proceedings.
HOW'S IT LOOK?
Columbia/TriStar presents Young Adam in a pretty good anamorphic-widescreen transfer of the film's original 2.35:1 theatrical presentation. It's a murky, grainy affair, and my first impression was "Yuck." But that may have been part of the director's intentions. Although detail is fine (excellent in close-ups and soft in backgrounds), the image has a washed-out sepia look. Some of the grain is significant, particularly in bright scenes. I noticed minor debris, as well as mild edge halos, minor ringing, both of which are moderately distracting in outdoor shots.
HOW'S IT SOUND?
The disc's Dolby Digital 5.1 track offers effective depth and clear dialog with no discernible distortion at either end. I was quite impressed by the surround activity, which has a terrific, immersive quality. Listen for it in the creaking of the boat and in the score.
WHAT ELSE IS THERE?
First of all, be ready for a forced trailer for Baadasssss! before you get to the menu. Once you get past that and into the Special Features section, you'll find a fair array of supplements, including two commentary tracks.
First up is a Commentary by Director David Mackenzie, Editor Colin Monie, Production Designer Laurence Dorman, and Actress Tilda Swinton, and I would say it's the more involving and informative of the two. The participants talk at length about the shooting of the film on location in Glasgow, and about the complexities of plot and character. It's a low-key listen, but I enjoyed the back-and-forth banter. It's not the most entertaining audio track in the world, considering its soft-spokenness, but if you like the film, you'll enjoy the conversation.
Faring not quite as well is a separate Commentary by Director David Mackenzie, in which he goes into more depth about the characters, story, casting, and production. There are long silences between monotone bursts of information. (Here's an example of the character of this track: "I've always liked that shot…" …long pause…) He essentially spends a lot of time talking about his intentions, and frankly, I thought the first track provided enough of that.
Next is the aforementioned Extended Scene, which is apparently the reason the film earned an NC-17 rating in theaters. It gives you a more revealing look at the first sexual encounter between Ewan McGregor and Tilda Swinton's characters on the riverbank. It's a 3-minute-long scene extension.
The Ewan McGregor Original Passage Narration is three snippets of cut narration totaling about 30 seconds. Much as the case with Blade Runner, this voice-over material was deemed superfluous and cut out. Two of the snippets involve Swinton's character, and the other is about the moon.
Under Previews, you'll find trailers for Young Adam (in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen), Baadasssss!, Big Fish, Carandiru, The Mother, and Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring.
WHAT'S LEFT TO SAY?
Despite the apparent censoring of Young Adam for the Blockbuster/Wal-Mart crowd, the entire film does appear to be here, and it's presented well on disc. Image and sound quality are good, and supplements are modest but informative. Give it a shot.