CAST: James McAvoy, Jamie Bell, Eddie Marsan, Imogen Poots, Shirley Henderson, Joanne Froggart, Jim Broadbent
RUNNING TIME: 97 mins
BASICALLY…: A corrupt, abusive and addicted Scottish policeman (McAvoy) will do anything to discredit his co-workers before they beat him to the coveted Detective position…
NOW FOR THE REVIEW…
The celebrated Scottish author Irvine Welsh has had only one of his works successfully converted into a film, that being Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting. Other adaptations, on the other hand, have not had such a smooth transition (remember Ecstasy? Yeah, us neither). Therefore, it was possible for Welsh’s 1998 prose Filth to go either way. Past declarations of the novel being “unfilmable” certainly didn’t help its chances, but director Jon S. Baird refused to give in to public opinion and go ahead with the translation anyway.
His brashness results in a film that not only ranks in as the best Welsh adaptation since Trainspotting, but also perhaps as one of the best British films to come out this year.
Baird creates a dark and disturbing world for these characters to manouver around in, each scene looking more repugnant than the last. A scene in a club bathroom, for instance, is covered in urine-yellow lighting while most other interior sets give off a faded-blue feel to it as white sunlight shines through the windows. This may sound like a decorator’s opinion but make no mistake; colour is an important contributing factor for Baird’s vision of a Scotland in depravity. He clearly has a vision for this dark tale, and it is conveyed rather well.
Also acting as the writer for the project, Baird seems to have grasped Welsh’s oddball mentality through dialogue and pacing, although not all of it shines through. Replacing scenes from the book as narrated by a tapeworm (it’s explained better in the book) are a series of scenes taking place in an imagined consultation room with Jim Broadbent’s doctor whose oversized forehead reminds any comic geek of Hector Hammond from the Green Lantern series (and, for loyalists only, the film). They still get across the basic thoughts and traumas going on inside our protagonist’s head, but the execution is more weird than it is frightening. Even the concept of the tapeworm is introduced but doesn’t really add to anything big. Makes you wonder if the original idea in Welsh’s book would’ve worked better, but then again the medium of film is entirely different to prose so perhaps this was the best way to do it for the screen. The scenes themselves are very good, but maybe if it didn’t come off nearly as goofy as it does.
What also makes Filth stand out from the rest of the crowd is its refusal to never back down and challenge its audience. This movie is absolutely not intended for the faint-hearted or naïve so if you fit that description, another Scotland-set movie called Sunshine on Leith is happily showing next door. As for everyone else, it’s good to see a film that does pull punches and doesn’t shy away from the more disgusting sides to the story. As a result, the film leaves a lasting impact on you that hardly any other film so far this year has been able to do. Before the first twenty minutes are up we see, among other acts, a young Asian man being beaten to death by a gang of thugs – a crime which acts as a sort-of catalyst to the rest of the flick – and James McAvoy’s Bruce Robertson blackmailing an underage girl, forcing her to perform fellatio and then criticise it right to her face. Throughout the film, we are treated to a number of unnerving hallucinations mostly involving animals that are genuinely scary and leave you feeling freaked out. As stated, not for the faint-hearted.
But the good news for everyone still invested is that the film gets much more uncomfortable and yet still very watchable as time goes on. The reason for that? Our main character.
Bruce Robertson is by every definition a horrible human being. He lies, he cheats, he manipulates, he sleeps around with other colleagues’ wives, he’s a drug and alcohol abuser, he prank-calls a woman as a pervert disguised as Frank Sidebottom and then frames her husband (Eddie Marsan) for the crime, he blows cigarette smoke in the face of an asthmatic, and he’s something of a violent sociopath. And yet, in the film’s bizarre, twisted state of mind, he’s a figure we admire and, dare I say it, relate to. Of course, no-one in real life is as nasty as Robertson is – not to our knowledge, anyway – but every aspect of him represents a tiny part of our inner psyche that just wants to go out and cause havoc. There are bullies in the world, there are drug addicts, alcoholics, adulterers et cetera whom we all look down on with disgust and, yes, filth. Robertson is as if all of our inner demons got mashed together to create a living, breathing human being, creating the ultimate bully. What makes one of the most fascinating lead characters of the year, or indeed any year in the past few years, is that he is us, and we are him. Every single person has a fraction of Bruce Robertson inside their minds; even the most pleasant people you come across have an inkling of the man’s selfish ambition. He is an incredible creation because he is a bleak, down-to-earth cynical reminder of the human race. There are some who admire Atticus Finch from To Kill A Mockingbird as the good, warm-hearted and intellectual person we all aspire to be. In direct contrast, we should identify Bruce Robertson in Filth as the venomous, mean-spirited and disgusting person that we are. Such complexity and depth gives way to a standout character study and standout character.
Robertson is written wonderfully, but so much of his nature does come from the performance. James McAvoy, as you may imagine, is just unbelievable in the role. He takes this repugnant character and gives him the charm and charisma he frankly doesn’t deserve. He knows what he’s doing is morally wrong to the rest of the world, but he really doesn’t give a rat’s – he does it because he enjoys doing it, like there’s no other way to survive in this world. McAvoy completely sells the anarchy and chaos that comes with the character, challenging his inner Bronson or Alex from A Clockwork Orange to bring to life a deranged lunatic. His facial expressions as things begin to go his way are that of pure delight, much like Alex’s undeniable sense of joy in Stanley Kubrick’s film. The faces he makes at the very end of the film create a haunting final couple of shots that leave a large mark in your subconscious. The set-up for the climax also reveals a twist regarding a narrative device throughout the film, and for now we’ll say that you’ve never seen James McAvoy like he does in those scenes. It’s a fantastic character that needed a fantastic actor to play the part otherwise it would have fallen flat, but McAvoy is worthy of all the praise he’s been getting in his career-best performance as Bruce Robertson, and maybe even worthy of serious awards consideration, provided BAFTA doesn’t get too squeamish during screenings.
Other actors cast in the film all do their best to match McAvoy’s towering performance, and most of them get pretty damn close if not being exceptional themselves. Most of the other characters are memorable in their own way, including a Chief of Police fixated on becoming a screenwriter (any aspiring writer for the screen will chuckle as he reads Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey, a prominent book in most Screenwriting classes, and has a 2001: A Space Odyssey poster on his wall). But the figures that get more attention include Robertson’s sidekick played by Jamie Bell, who creates an intimidating presence as a younger policeman with his own sins, and Marsan’s lovably-naïve freemason who Robertson recruits as his best friend and is more than happy to manipulate and use for his own ends. Other actors like Imogen Poots, Shirley Henderson and Broadbent are not given as much material to shine, but they all do great jobs regardless.
Having not read Irvine Welsh’s book before seeing this film, it is impossible for this reviewer to pinpoint the differences that Jon S. Baird has created for this adaptation, the tapeworm section being a widely-known fact anyway. It’s apparently darker and degrading in the book as it is here, with criticism by some focusing on how soft it is compared to Welsh’s words. If that’s the case, then we must have gotten really, really lucky here. But an adaptation should stand well on its own and like a lot of them nowadays it is very much its own creation while still keeping to its chest the spirit and debauchery of the source material.
SO, TO SUM UP…
Filth is easily the best Irvine Welsh adaptation since Trainspotting, which swims rather than sinks thanks to its marvellous lead character and James McAvoy’s magnificent performance. While some of its imagery and scenes may make an uncomfortable watch for some, especially for the naïve movie-goer, the rest of the film remains strong enough to warrant multiple repeat viewings. Such is the paving of the way for a future cult classic.