Filth is an admirable crack at bringing Welsh’s twisted tale to the big screen. Its triumph, though, is as a showcase for James McAvoy
Directed by: Jon S Baird
Starring: James McAvoy, Jamie Bell, Imogen Poots, Eddie Marsan, Jonnie Froggatt, Jim Broadbent
Star rating: * * *
Trainspotting aside, Irvine Welsh and cinema make uneasy bedfellows. His narratives are so internalised, his prose so splenetic and his plots so elliptical that wrangling them into a coherent form on screen without diminishing what frequently makes them great on the page is tricky to do. The Acid House was a Trainspotting-light disappointment and the less said about Ecstasy the better.
With Filth, however, writer-director Jon S Baird has an admirable crack at bringing Welsh’s wilfully vile, vicious and surreal tale of a twisted Edinburgh copper to the big screen without losing the full force of its compulsively repugnant style.
True to its title, the film is full of characters indulging in extreme forms of violence, drug abuse, masturbation and sadomasochism – all the while espousing the kind of racist, misogynist and homophobic world views we’d all like to think have been eradicated from society yet know are still prevalent. Most of these are embodied in the form of Filth’s main character, Bruce Robertson (James McAvoy). He’s a detective sergeant with the Lothian and Borders constabulary whose myriad addictions (booze, drugs, sex), together with some hinted-at mental health issues, seem to have pushed his wife and child away. They also seem to be pushing him towards an almighty breakdown just as the silly season is kicking in and a racially motivated murder in the city is bringing external pressure and scrutiny to bear on the department.
With a promotion on the line, however, Robertson is – for reasons that become increasingly clear as the film progresses – more interested in playing his colleagues off against one another than solving the murder and so embarks on a series of cruel games designed to undermine the chances of not just his rookie partner, Ray (Jamie Bell), but “metrosexual” poseur Peter (Emun Elliot), IQ-challenged old-timer Gus (Gary Lewis), and by-the-book rising star Amanda (Imogen Poots). He also sets about amusing himself by crank-calling the wife (Shirley Henderson) of his weak-minded Masonic best friend Bladesey (Eddie Marsan) and treating his ineffectual boss (John Sessions) with withering disdain.
All this is more or less straight out of the book. Trouble is, Baird hasn’t quite solved the problem of how to transform it all into something that is more than a collection of desperate-to-shock scenes. Characters and concepts (such as the sentient tape worm that forms a central part of Welsh’s novel) too often fall by the wayside and in keeping with the Christmas setting, the grotesquery frequently feels a little bit too broad and panto-like. Some of that is deliberate of course. Baird is attempting to create a heightened, subjective world to reflect Robertson’s fracturing mental state, and there are moments that are quite effective – particularly when reality suddenly impinges and Robertson is forced to emerge from his darker self.
But where films such as Nicolas Winding Refn’s Bronson and Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (both touchstones for Filth) are gleefully and genuinely transgressive in depicting reprehensible behaviour, Filth just seems a little bit naughty by comparison.
This approach also makes the film curiously unmoored in other ways. Welsh’s novel was set in the late 1990s, but as Danny Boyle and Co did with the film version of the 1980s-set Trainspotting, Baird avoids too many specific period signifiers.
The world of Filth is a world with wall-mounted flat screen TVs but old rotary dial telephones, a world in which Frank Sidebottom remains a current pop cultural reference point yet peroxide-haired gangs (led by Martin Compston) roam the city’s underpasses like the droogs from A Clockwork Orange as re-imagined by Luc Besson.
This gives Filth a weird, retro-futuristic feel that, again, works well with some of its more surreal flights of fancy, but also stops it feeling particularly of the moment. Where Trainspotting – especially with the addition of Renton’s “Shite being Scottish” rant – felt thoroughly plugged into the cultural and political zeitgeist, Filth seems curiously unengaged with the world around it.
It may, for instance, kick off with an amusingly ironic celebration of Scottishness that works as a sharp corrective to the postcard pretty view of the capital on offer in the forthcoming Sunshine on Leith, but it feels like a failure of both films that neither conveys any sense that there might be something bigger going on in Scotland at the moment.
What makes Filth worthwhile in the end is the showcase it provides McAvoy. Gleefully embracing Robertson’s out-of-control proclivities, he imbues this apparent monster with a depth that makes him simultaneously repellent and magnetic. The skill with which he’s able to navigate Robertson’s twisted psyche, as he’s haunted by bestial hallucinations or childhood flashbacks one second and then abusing colleagues the next, is thrilling to witness.
In a film that sometimes tries too hard to make you look away, he makes it impossible to stop watching.