An NC-17 rating on a film from the MPAA isn’t quite the disability it used to be, but it still can be a problem from a business standpoint. That’s the hurdle that “Young Adam,” a gritty British picture adapted from Scottish “Beat” writer Alexander Trocchi’s 1957 novel, shares with other recent serious NC-17 or unrated works such as “L.I.E.” and “The Dreamers.” The film centers on an amoral young man who’s confronted by his penchant for callously using the people around him, especially women, when he fishes a corpse out of the canals between Glasgow and Edinburgh while working as a mate on a transport barge. Ewan McGregor plays Joe, the protagonist, and Tilda Swinton is Ella Gault, the bedraggled owner of the barge whom he seduces almost in front of her husband Les (Peter Mullan). Emily Mortimer appears as Cathy, a rather pathetic young woman with whom Joe had an earlier relationship, and the intimate sequences between her and Joe on the one hand and Ella and Joe on the other are explicit, if–given the bleak setting and mood of the picture–hardly titillating.
On a recent visit to Dallas, Swinton and writer-director David Mackenzie discussed the film, including the effect of the rating. “Essentially we’re fine with the idea [of the NC-17],” Mackenzie explained. “We made a grown-up film for grown-ups. But there is a certain stigma in the States about that [the rating]. It’s a pity if people are somehow led to believe that it’s a ‘bad’ film as a result of the fact that it’s got that rating. But we’ve had a lot of support from a lot of people. There are rumors that even theatres may be encouraging more NC-17 [films], saying we’ve done enough films for children–there are plenty of films out there for children and teenagers, let’s finally do films for people who are over the age of eighteen as well. There’s a huge kind of constituency out there that the distributors might want to go for.”
Swinton argued, moreover, that the real reason behind the rating might be something other than the occasionally explicit sex and nudity. “I’m beginning to think that we got it for intellectual content,” she said, alluding to the moral ambiguity that’s at the core of the story. “I think that to be serious and to be complicated, to poke the idea of fiction and the idea of moralistic justice, is somehow indecent at the moment, and maybe that’s the canal we’re floating down.” She added: “This film is so much about things not being as they seem and about judgments and how easy it is for us to lull ourselves into the idea of just assuming things, always–that what you see is what you get. [In] a film like this, the tenor and entire texture, and the action as well [are] amorphous. It’s tonal, really. [It’s] about attitude, and to a certain extent about politics with a small ‘p,’ an attitude toward life.” And she reiterated her growing belief that it was that sense of uncertainty and moral inconclusiveness to which the MPAA really objected, even if they didn’t articulate it, while noting that because of its approach “Young Adam” was exactly the sort of material she was most drawn to. “At an unconscious level,” she observed, “what I’m really interested in [is] the whole atmosphere of randomness and muddiness and greyness and confusion.”
Mackenzie emphasized that there was never any serious discussion of making cuts in the picture to satisfy the MPAA. “The distributor would rather have the film as it is, uncut but with an NC-17 rating, than cut and not what it is.” And he expressed satisfaction in that, because transferring the book to the screen was something that had fascinated him for a decade. He observed that it was a challenging task because of the nature of the story. “Film, cinema is kind of about action, in a way, and this story is about inaction in lots of ways,” he said. “So you’re kind of using action to talk about inaction, you’re using surface to talk about things that go beneath the surface, so…you have to just kind of explore.” And he noted that while the book and film were “structured similarly,” some of the book’s twists were impossible to translate exactly to the screen. He pointed particularly to a major revelation that occurs far into the picture. “You don’t know that…until a third of the way into the book [either],” he observed. “It’s actually a rather delicious way that’s revealed to you [in the book]. But it’s a literary device I couldn’t translate into cinematic terms.” Then he added, sheepishly, “Well, maybe I could have if I’d had a better imagination.”
“Young Adam” is a Sony Pictures Classics release.