Back in the mid 1990s, when British cinema was still basking in the success of Working Title’s Four Weddings and a Funeral, Danny Boyle’s Irvine Welsh adaptation Trainspotting seemed hugely refreshing simply because it wasn’t a romantic comedy or a costume drama. Boyle filled the film with running, jumping, fighting, swearing and lashings of Britpop music. The social message was neither here nor there. The fact that the characters were “skagboys” from Leith, struggling with heroin addiction, wasn’t an issue, either. What mattered was the patter, the madcap energy and mood of defiance.
Scripted and directed by Jon S Baird, whose last film was 2008’s Cass, the latest Welsh adaptation shares some of the Trainspotting energy. It takes a determinedly worm’s-eye view of human nature. It is obscene, puerile and cynical by turns – and that’s its glory. The producers reportedly struggled to find financiers who would go near such miasmatic material. Nonetheless, thanks to a tremendous performance from James McAvoy, the film has an emotional kick that you wouldn’t expect.
“Their whole meaning and virtue is in their unredeemed lowness, not only in the sense of obscenity, but lowness of outlook in every direction whatever,” George Orwell wrote admiringly of Donald McGill’s saucy seaside postcards. The same applies to many of the scenes in Filth. The early moments, in which McAvoy’s corrupt Edinburgh policeman Bruce Robertson is first seen running amok, are grotesquely funny. Detective Sergeant Robertson lies, cheats, plants evidence, takes drugs, blackmails young women into having sex, makes obscene phone calls and uses every ruse he can in his bid to win promotion at work. At first, McAvoy plays the character as one of those pantomime-style villains who always seems to be tipping us the wink as he dreams up his next act of skullduggery. He takes such relish in his own bad behaviour that we can’t help rooting for him. Only slowly do we become aware of how damaged the character really is. Robertson, we gradually learn, is a manic depressive whose glamorous, Gilda-like wife has long since abandoned him.
It’s a measure of the strength of McAvoy’s acting that he is able to play Robertson as a larger-than-life Iago-type at the beginning of the film but then, later, to show his vulnerabilities and the extent of his self-deception. There is nothing comic at all about the sequences in which he roams the Edinburgh streets in drag or sits alone in his squalid home. Baird’s screenplay may chronicle his decline but it never lapses into sentimentality. Even at his most suicidal, Robertson isn’t asking for our sympathy.
The film-makers have surrounded McAvoy with some redoubtable character actors. Shirley Henderson is in typical scene-stealing form as Bunty, the amorous middle-aged housewife whom Robertson bombards with obscene calls and tries to seduce. There is an affecting performance, too, from Eddie Marsan as Bunty’s hen-pecked husband, the accountant and freemason Clifford Blades, who mistakenly regards Robertson as his most loyal friend. As he also shows in Uberto Pasolini’s new film Still Life, Marsan excels at playing mild-mannered men, trampled on by their bosses and colleagues. Meanwhile, John Sessions is enjoyably earnest as Robertson’s boss, who dreams of being a screenwriter.
Not all of the gambits work. The highly stylised, phantasmagoric scenes in which Robertson encounters his psychiatrist Dr Rossi (Jim Broadbent) seem like discarded outtakes from The Rocky Horror Show. The sequence in which Robertson and his colleagues photocopy their genitals at the office party veers off into Loaded territory. The portrayal of some of Robertson’s colleagues verges on lazy, sitcom-style caricature. The references to A Clockwork Orange seem leaden and obvious. As Robertson’s mental condition deteriorates, so does the coherence of the storytelling. We are so accustomed to his venality and sleaziness that it is hard to take seriously his yearning for the woman whose husband – in an act of wholly uncharacteristic selflessness – he tries to save from a heart attack.
Director Baird uses several of the same Edinburgh locations (the Royal Mile, the Grassmarket) that are also seen in new Proclaimers musical Sunshine on Leith (see separate review), However, Filth doesn’t offer a view of the city that its tourist chiefs will much enjoy. Early in the film, we see various sickly looking locals eating pies and drinking whisky as Robertson walks down from Edinburgh castle, extolling Scotland’s main contributions to world culture, namely whisky and television. (The scene echoes the famous “It’s shite being Scottish, we’re the lowest of the low” lines yelled by Ewan McGregor’s Renton in Trainspotting.)
Filth doesn’t have the formal inventiveness that Boyle brought to Trainspotting. What it does possess is chutzpah. The film-makers are ready to try anything, from torture sequences to singalongs of “Silver Lady” with David Soul, to provoke a response. At its worst, its gestures seem like adolescent shock tactics. However, there are frequent moments when the film is very witty indeed. Baird’s main achievement is to provide a platform for McAvoy to give surely his richest screen performance to date. Whether in X-Men: First Class or The Last King of Scotland, we’re used to seeing him in conventional leading-man roles. He has never played anyone remotely as sleazy as Bruce Robertson before. Somehow, he gives Irvine Welsh’s foul-mouthed, psychopathic copper pathos and even a hint of tragic grandeur. McAvoy played Macbeth on stage not long after acting in Filth – and you get the sense that Robertson was the perfect preparation for stepping on to Shakespeare’s blasted heath.