Lines of coke and moral lines have no meaning to dirty Edinburgh-based cop Bruce Robertson (McAvoy). Hard drinking, drug taking, and completely corrupt, Robertson will do whatever it takes to get the promotion to detective inspector. With his personal life in tatters, and his mind becoming increasingly warped, the chances of this new job role seem slim.
Irvine Welsh had a lot to do with British cinema becoming more respected and less bland. In an industry dominated by smug London based love stories, Trainspotting arrived with Scottish infused dirt and anger. The drugs, the shitty toilets, and the lack of forward momentum were – ironically enough – refreshing cinema. Instead of the old colonial trappings that British narratives seemed unavoidably infected by, Trainspotting provided something different – a more realistic representation of the struggles of the average folk, delivered with a cheeky Scottish grin. Everything that was celebrated in Trainspotting was the converse of what society deemed acceptable. This lack of respect has blessed Trainspotting with an endearing and memorable tone.
It’s also fair to say that no other Welsh adaptation has ever matched the success of Trainspotting. The attempts to turn that socially deviant film into a genre, or stylistic choice, failed and the The Acid House and Ecstacy both flopped. It seems that Trainspotting is Welsh’s only successful filmic adaptation and so for many Filth looked set to be the antidote, the Trainspotting of this decade.
Filth, a novel from 1998
Filth was initially a novel from 1998 and with the new Labour government playing spin games the satirical story of the police chain of command seemed apt. This is a book bound by its time and the filmic representation of the book is partially dated because of it. The dark tone and the disintegration of a man (played expertly by James McAvoy) aren’t tropes that age so quickly however and Filth may well be the film to introduce Welsh’s particular brand of writing to a new audience.
The story is of Robertson, a copy very much like Harvey Kietel in Bad Lieutenant, and he’s just as corrupt, just as unlikeable, and just as devious. Drugs for both of these characters defined and forced their actions, and in Filth Robertson gives in to the increasingly persistent desires of an addict. McAvoy manages to play Robertson deftly and the full-blown transition from a functioning, professional addict to a broken, mentally damaged shell is something that he manages with surprising flair.
There’s nothing likable about Robertson. In fact he’s odious and there’s little if any chance of redemption. He’s a bully and his actions are unpleasant to watch – the scene where he forces a young girl to perform oral sex serves to completely alienate. There’s a problem inherent with this film and that’s its tone. Due to the antagonistic nature of the ‘protagonist’ it’s hard to feel any sort of sympathy or concern even though this man is falling apart.
This lack of empathy is definitely deliberately fostered and McAvoy pushes the macabre tone as far as he can. This is something reflected in the supporting cast and as a communal piece it works very well. The sheer number of interesting and unique characters make this story hard to progress and the often bat shit crazy narrative fails to conform to the frenetic pace.
The diverse character story’s need to be juggled very carefully and at times it works really well. When it does it’s a convincing and cohesive tale of a man’s descent into madness, and when it doesn’t work it simply feels like the film has beaten Robertson to it – and lost the plot completely. However the final scenes and the ending of the film reiterate the insanity felt by Robertson and the closing scene contextualises the entire dark narrative. There’s a method to the madness it seems.
So, has Filth resurrected Welsh’s influence on the British film industry? Sort of. Filth isn’t Trainspotting and it’s definitely not as good, what it is however is an exhilarating ride into one man’s tortured psyche. Filth belongs to McAvoy’s demonic sociopath. That’s really what it is – a bastardised character piece.
Filth isn’t innovative cinema and we’ve all seen this story before. We’ve not seen McAvoy like this however, and it’s a film that will shock, enthral, and definitely entertain.