Young Adam (2003)

young adam

“It just happened…”

The Scoop: 2003 NC-17, Directed by David Mackenzie and starring Ewan McGregor, Tilda Swinton, Peter Mullan and Emily Mortimer

Tagline: No tagline.

Summary Capsule: A dead body, an out of control libido and an immoral man’s experience with a moral dilemma, all wrapped up in some very nice cinematography and an incredibly thick Scots accent.

Sue’s rating: Surgeon General’s Warning: Repeated dropping of trou may lead to moral questions and killer brush burn.

Sue’s review: Having been privy to some debate and discontented ranting regarding Young Adam’s NC-17 rating and those old fusspots at MPAA headquarters, I decided that if the opportunity presented itself, I’d do my civic Mutant Reviewer duty go see what all the fuss was actually about.

Besides, I’m a member of the Slightly Obsessed with Ewan McGregor Legion. Ahem.

So I did it. I bit the bullet. Drove forty miles. Braved city traffic and the dreaded inaccuracies of Mapquest. (I have a theory that the Mapquest people will be the first against the wall when the revolution comes.) I parked somewhere in the vicinity of where I needed to be, ran through a shopping mall asking directions on the fly, found the theater, plunked my money down and sat in what has to have been the most uncomfortable chair in cinematic history to watch Young Adam. No kidding, my knees might be permanently damaged by being jammed against the chair in front of me, and I am by no means of Amazonian proportions.

The sacrifices I make in the line of duty.

But on to the nitty gritty. And I do mean gritty!

Young Adam made me uncomfortable. It left me numb. It forced me to look deep into human nature and I didn’t like what I saw. What it didn’t do was disillusion me, because for foul or fair, I’m at a place where I’ve seen and experienced a portion of under-the-radar ugliness from certain folks who haven’t quite developed the content of their characters beyond the primordial ooze. Being reminded of all that was about as much fun as rediscovering that cavity you managed to ignore until a spoonful of Ben & Jerry’s brought you crashing to your knees. Yeah, it was a lot like that. And that may be the only semi-humorous comparison you’re going to see in the context of this review because if anyone can walk away from Young Adam movie with a fit of the giggles, I suggest counseling.

Set in and around 1950’s Glasgow, the story centers on Joe Taylor (Ewan McGregor), a twenty-something lad who seems to be a bit of a drifter, a bit of a dreamer and an apparently crappy writer. As we discover thought a series of flashbacks (I hate flashbacks, but these were pretty smooth) he and his girlfriend (Emily Mortimer) have recently broken up — punctuating their goodbyes with some seriously raunchy sex, a hug and a “we’ve run our course”. Now he’s got a gig as a sort of moving man (“Two Guys, A Gal and a Barge”) working along the canals of Scotland.

Flashbacks aside, the movie itself actually begins, when the body of a recently (no apparent sea nibbler activity) deceased young woman floats in to the docks where the barge is currently moored. Joe and his boss, Les (Peter Mullan), drag her out of the water. What follows is probably the one moment in the movie where Joe displays the better part of human nature by his apparent compassion for the dead woman. It isn’t a particularly poignant scene because this is what we’d expect from just about anyone. I mean, duh, right?

And then, moments later, re-evaluation time rolls around when Joe makes a silent, subtle but (geeze-oh-man!) unmistakable sexual advance toward his boss’s wife while clueless Les is still talking to the ambulance crew. The moment is shocking, understated and it perfectly defines Joe’s character without the need for a single word.

Joe turns out to be sort of a cross between a sex addict and a social voyeur. He’s got the looks and the come-hither body language down to a science. If libido could be measured in megawatts, he’d have enough to keep London chugging along right into the 90’s. But he’s an opportunist, turning his considerable sexuality toward the lonely, the isolated and the transparently needy. Les’s wife, Ella (Tilda Swinton) is no exception and it’s a conquest he seems to take considerable satisfaction in, although he never gives the impression that he particularly likes her or even dislikes Les. In fact, he doesn’t seem to like or dislike anyone at all. He unreservedly emotes only one time in the entire movie and when he does, it isn’t a pretty sight.

When a man is charged with the murder of the dead woman, it almost seems like an afterthought to Joe’s systematic seduction of every double-X chromosomed character in the film. The alleged murderer’s guilt is a foregone conclusion to everyone except Joe, who knows a lot more about the deceased and her cause of death than he’s let on. Considering that Great Britain had the death penalty in those days, Joe runs up against the predicament of either speaking out and saving the guy’s life or keeping his mouth shut and avoiding the potential mire of British Establishment Whoop-arse. There is nothing, and I mean absolutely nothing, in his character to suggest that he’ll do the right thing. It’s downright sobering.

I’ll leave the ending to those who have or will see the movie, but it doesn’t really matter how things turn out. We’ve met Joe, experienced the world the way he experiences it, and that’s enough to keep me popping antacids for a while.

The discussion surrounding Young Adam, particularly in the United States, has been mostly based on the movie’s NC-17 rating and the reasons for it. I’m sure that a lot of the people who do make the effort to see it are going to either be hard-core Ewan McGregor fans or just looking for the advertised graphic sex, particularly the infamous custard ‘n condiments scene. This is a mistake.

Don’t get me wrong. McGregor is an exceptional and courageous actor. It doesn’t take a lot of guts to play a hero and a lot of actors really enjoy the over-the-top role of the villain. But Joe is too close to the potential that we all have somewhere inside of us. He’s selfish, out for himself, he’s ambivalent, he’s jaded and he is absolutely believable. To take on a character like that is to look walk closely with the darker places… the parts of us that we’d just as soon no one else saw and that most of us would rather not admit to. The ordinarily affable McGregor unflinchingly makes himself ugly. Literally ugly. In fact, by the end, I almost didn’t recognize him. Gutsy move for a guy with legitimate heartthrob status.

The sex… or at least the attitude around it… is easily what I found most disturbing. Not because of violence, because with one exception it really wasn’t terribly violent. Not because it was graphic — health class was a long long time ago and I’m way past being shocked by the particulars of the act. What bothered me then, bothers me today and will bother me for a long time to come was the apathy of it.

The romantic in me believes beyond all doubt that sex should be an expression of love between two partners. The religious side of me believes and supports the concept of sex being best reserved for the state of holy matrimony. The scientific side of me recognizes sex as the means of procreation. The realist in me recognizes that there are plenty of folks who engage in it for fun, entertainment, friendship or even some sort of personal validation. Odds are, no matter who you are or what your views are, you’ll pass a nodding acquaintance with at least one of these nookie-inspiring motives.

I didn’t see any of that here.

Joe just did it… to do it. As and when the opportunity presented itself. No affection, no connection, just the act itself. That bothers me. A lot.

So, would I recommend Young Adam? For a cheap thrill? No. For the vast majority of kids under the age of seventeen? Sorry guys, I have to say no, although not for the same reasons the MPAA cited. (And yeah, I’ll get some negative feedback for that, but that’s where I stand.)


As a story? As something thought provoking? Yes. Yes, this was a good movie. This was worth watching.

Bottom line, it was worth Mapquest and that lousy chair and an eighty-mile round trip.

No regrets.

When online motel reservations go wrong.


  • Barges are like floating Tupperware. You can store anything in them!
  • The phrase, “You wash my back and I’ll wash yours” is really pretty gross in application.
  • Throwing garbage into a river makes for a nifty introduction to your future employer.
  • When a man makes you custard, just say thank you!
  • This movie would have been a great opportunity for an Oxi-Clean product placement.
  • Saying “I’m sorry I shagged your wife” after being caught in the act lacks a certain amount of sincerity when you take the time to finish your cigarette first while still naked and in bed with her first.
  • Joe’s theoretical tale about the girl’s death is his longest speaking part in the movie… and a load of crap.
  • Show him you care. Cook him an egg.
  • While Scottish beat author Alexander Trocchi distinguished himself with novels like “Young Adam” and “Cain’s Book”, he supplemented his income for years by writing pornography.
  • When funding fell through for Young Adam, both Tilda Swinton and Ewan McGregor elected to stay attached to the project for several months until new financing could be found.

Groovy Quotes

    Joe: [Having been caught in a torrid affair with the boss’s wife] It was nothing personal against you, Les. It just happened.

If you liked this movie, try these:

  • Miller’s Crossing
  • The Deep End
  • The Ring


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