Film: The drugs don't work

The Acid House (15) Director: Paul Mcguigan Starring: Ewen Bremner, Martin Clunes, Kevin Mckidd 112 Mins

Well, it's one way to ring in the new year. Paul McGuigan's triptych of films adapted from stories by Irvine Welsh arrive like gatecrashers at a hogmanay do, the sort whose eye you'd rather not catch: raucous, tattooed, beerybreathed, radge (mad, in the local vernacular), though not without a certain profane vitality and wit. McGuigan has the unenviable task of following Trainspotting, Danny Boyle's high-profile adaptation of Welsh's first book, an instant cult hit whose inventiveness still reverberates through British cinema. Even the orange-and-black livery of that film's promotional poster bears an unforgettable iconographic integrity.

Confronted with largely the same milieu - the strugglers and stragglers of drab, lowlife Edinburgh - McGuigan has taken a sensible decision not to show off. Nothing in The Acid House matches the arresting visual cadenza of Ewan McGregor taking a nosedive into a toilet bowl, yet there is a measure of Trainspotting's deranged black comedy, scabrous banter and sudden violence. Regarding the last of these, it's well nigh impossible to watch the volcanic unpleasantness of Larry (Gary McCormack) raging through the middle story, "A Soft Touch", and not be reminded of the bantam aggression of Robert Carlyle's Begbie from the earlier film. It's the most realistic segment of the trio, relating the trials of Johnny (Kevin McKidd), left to mind his infant daughter while his sluttish wife Catriona (Michelle Gomez) moves upstairs to service the noisy lust of his peroxide- yob neighbour, Larry. Having had his video and television appropriated by the rutting couple, the hapless cuckold suffers the final indignity of seeing a hole poked through his ceiling, swiftly followed by Larry leading an extension cable to a plug point in his living room: now he's stealing his electricity.

This anecdote of domestic rupture vigorously underlines the basic pessimism of Welsh's writing in that it portrays compassion as a weakness. Johnny learns nothing from his humiliation; his change of heart at the story's end is not humane, just a reaffirmation that he will forever be a "soft touch". Not like Boab (Stephen McCole), subject of the first story, "The Granton Star Cause"; he, too, endures one mortification after another - dropped from the football team, dumped by his girlfriend, fired from his job and booted from the familial hearth by his parents - but, instead of crumpling under adversity, an encounter with "God" in a pub alters his whole perspective. "Ah'm gaunny make ye look like the dirty, lazy pest thit ye are," God tells him, and promptly turns Boab into a fly. What follows is Metamorphosis crossed with a sick revenge fantasy: it feels characteristic of Welsh's sardonic humour that Boab discovers how "eating shit" - his metaphorical lot as a human - can be turned to physical advantage as an insect.

McGuigan uses harsh colour and distorting angles to convey the antic and somewhat feral turn of Welsh's imagination, though certain passages that fly off the page fail to tweak the funny bone in the same way on screen. When Boab is caught vandalising a phone-box, for instance, he is hauled into the cells and given a savage doing over by a police sergeant. The reason? The policeman is a British Telecom shareholder, as he subsequently explains to Boab: "Ye ken, it jist goes tae show ye the effectiveness ay they privatisation policies. Ah would nivir huv reacted like that if ye had smashed up a phone-box when they were nationalised." The sudden change of register from demotic to officialese which is effected so wittily in prose seems cumbersome (and not very amusing) in the film.

Welsh's sentences aren't exactly resistant to screen translation; it's just that their music goes missing. This is further evidenced in the concluding story, another grotesque fantasia of displacement in which a football hooligan named Coco (played with maniacal abandon by Ewen Bremner) has a supercharged acid trip on the night of a violent electrical storm and winds up trapped in the body of an infant newly born to a middle-class couple (Jemma Redgrave and Martin Clunes). Coco lies helpless in a hospital bed, his responses apparently regressing to the level of a new-born baby. Again, Welsh's comedy of language - a bairn who talks in the broken glass accent of a Hibs supporter - is rendered too explicitly as a body-swap nightmare, with a Chucky doll performing the role of demon baby. It encapsulates the problem which a book like The Acid House presents to the filmmaker. While Paul McGuigan's adaptation thrums with a sort of gleeful disgust, it feels oddly compromised, and says little about the druggy squalor of Edinburgh's low-rent hinterland that Trainspotting hasn't already covered.

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