- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 13, 2004

In between blockbusters (the “Star Wars” features) and quirky fare (“Big Fish”), Ewan McGregor finds time for intimate character studies such as “Young Adam.”For an actor with enough range, charisma and good looks to be our next breakout star, it’s a daring move to take part in something like the dark “Young Adam,” an incomplete but well-crafted psychological study of a man without a moral compass.

In the film, an adaptation of Alexander Trocchi’s beat novel, Mr. McGregor is Joe, a drifter working as a bargeman in Glasgow during the 1950s.

His drudgery is interrupted when he sees a dead woman floating near the docks. Apparently curious, Joe follows the police investigation of her death through the local papers and whatever slivers of information he can gather from the boys at the pub. Meanwhile, he wastes little time sizing up his boss’s discontented wife, Ella (Tilda Swinton).

Our first hint of Joe’s amorality is glimpsed in his rubbing legs, and a little bit more, with Ella under the table while her husband (a quietly strong Peter Mullan) and child are seated across from them.

We have little sympathy for Joe’s hard-drinking boss, but that doesn’t make the affair any more palatable.

While Ella first gives in to Joe’s advances, she has second thoughts after considering what it could mean to her family. Joe, on the other hand, simply barrels forward whenever opportunity knocks, oblivious to the pain he might be causing.

Infidelity becomes the only splash of color in the characters’ bleak lives.

Cinematographer Giles Nuttgen matches the soot-stained lives of the main characters with a palette so muted the film might as well have been shot in black and white.

“Young Adam’s” unflinching sexuality is neither clinical nor romantic. The moments serve as carnal extensions of the characters’ suffering, and as such can’t be described as gratuitous.

Joe’s relationship with Ella, for example, is devoid of romance or tenderness. Their couplings are as mechanical as a barge chore.

The depths of Joe’s wickedness are slowly revealed, particularly with the flashback scenes of a past lover (Emily Mortimer of 2001’s “Lovely & Amazing”). Their courtship includes a sadistic lovemaking session that no doubt helped secure the film’s NC-17 label.

With his boyishly handsome face, Mr. McGregor imbues his character with more compassion than exists on the page. Miss Swinton’s pale features and angular physique serve as a fitting embodiment of her ailing heart.

“Young Adam” builds toward a climax that won’t take anyone who has peered into Joe’s soul by surprise. That we won’t care much when it happens is a burden the film cannot lift.

**1/2

WHAT: “Young Adam”

RATING: NC-17 (Frequent frontal nudity, sexuality, coarse language and violence)

CREDITS: Directed by David Mackenzie. Written by Mr. Mackenzie based on Alexander Trocchi’s novel. Original music by David Byrne.

RUNNING TIME: 99 minutes

WEB SITE: www.sonyclassics.com/youngadam/

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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