No one does grim movies better than the British. While mainstream filmmakers churn out eager-to-please trifles such as "Calendar Girls" and "Love Actually," more critically acclaimed, less commercial British auteurs busily hone the aesthetics of misery as sharply as Sweeney Todd honed knives — and with similar misanthropic zeal. From Mike Leigh's bleakly funny dirges to the aestheticized horrors of Lynne Ramsay's "Morvern Callar" (a movie in which dismembering a dead boyfriend registers as an expression of cool), this is a regional cinema with a serious case of the blues.
The latest addition to this movie miserabilism, "Young Adam" arrives on this side of the pond after a dust-up with the MPAA ratings board. Apparently freaked out by a heavily obscured pantomime of oral sex lasting all of 14 unsexy seconds, the board slapped the movie with an NC-17 for "some explicit sexual content." Although the film contains sexual content and the none-too-alarming sight of star Ewan McGregor's flaccid member, there's little genuinely explicit about its scenes of coitus, most of which occur under the discreet cover of clothing, shadow and careful choreography. Given that recent releases such as "The Cooler" and "In the Cut" received R ratings for more graphic grappling, it's likely that what threw the board wasn't just the sex in "Young Adam" but the film's chilled amorality.
Directed and written by David Mackenzie, from Alexander Trocchi's existential novel of the same title, "Young Adam" stars McGregor as Joe, a drifter working aboard a barge and caught up in adultery, intrigue and perhaps murder. The story takes place in Scotland of the mid-1950s and traces Joe's relationship with a former lover, Cathie (Emily Mortimer), in relation to his life with the barge's truculently married owners, gloomy Les (Peter Mullan) and gloomier Ella (Tilda Swinton). Amid multiple cigarettes and long brooding silences, Joe helps Les guide the barge along canals between Glasgow and Edinburgh, loading and offloading coal and other goods. When Joe spots a dead woman floating in the water, the discovery triggers something deep inside him, prompting a risky affair and a cascade of turbulent flashbacks.
"Young Adam" earned something of a cult following after its publication in 1954, which may explain why my paperback edition comes adorned with a blurb from the late William S. Burroughs. ("He was an individual," Burroughs declared cryptically of Trocchi.)
Unlike the novel, which is written in the first person, however, the film assumes a markedly less claustrophobic, less personal point of view. Everything happens more or less through Joe's eyes, but Mackenzie, having rejected a voice-over narration, never gets inside the character the way Martin Scorsese gets inside Travis Bickle in "Taxi Driver." In Scorsese's film, you can feel the director breathing down Travis' neck. By contrast, Mackenzie maintains the attentive distance of a salesclerk with his antihero, a discretion that keeps him at a safe remove from the maggots feasting inside.
While the novel turns Joe into a question mark, Mackenzie takes a more palatable, less ambiguous approach to the character. The casting of McGregor also softens Joe. Even tamped down and without his easy smile, the actor conveys so much natural charm he's a sorry excuse for a moral void. These changes compromise the adaptation but, ironically, generally improve the story since Trocchi's existentialism has neither the heft of Jean-Paul Sartre nor the pulp pleasures of James M. Cain. Mackenzie may have realized the shortcomings in Trocchi's prose or decided he didn't want to condemn his film commercially. Whichever the case, he has greatly tempered the story's brutality the old-fashioned way: He puts an appealing, sympathetic star at the center and surrounds him with beautiful visuals, with a darkly contrasting color palette of bruising black and blue.
In Joe, Trocchi created a character for whom death and desire have become interchangeable, a conceit that struck a chord with some post-World War II readers. When Joe first sees the dead woman floating in the canal in the novel, he notes that her flesh "had the ripeness and maturity of a large mushroom." The sight of the corpse inspires a queasy passion, triggering a further descent into sexual and psychological oblivion. Mackenzie gamely attempts to translate Trocchi's acid-etched vision, but he lacks the writer's corrosiveness. Only Swinton, who does grim better than any movie actor alive, captures the novel's uncompromising disgust. Whether she's baring her breasts or sloppily chewing a hunk of bread, her portrait of wretchedness incarnate is so persuasive you may try to bolt for the door, notwithstanding that looming "no exit" sign.
MPAA rating: NC-17 for some explicit sexual content
Times guidelines: Nudity, adult language, sexual congress, some violence
Recorded Picture Co., Hanway, Film Council, Scottish Screen and Sveno Media present a Jeremy Thomas production, released by Sony Pictures Classics. Writer-director David Mackenzie. Based on the novel by Alexander Trocchi. Music David Byrne. Director of photography Giles Nuttgens. Editor Colin Monie. Production designer Laurence Dorman. Costume designer Jacqueline Durran. Casting Des Hamilton. Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes.Exclusively at Laemmle's Sunset 5, 8000 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, (323) 848-3500, and Landmark's NuWilshire, 1314 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica, (310) 394-8099.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times