The Trainspotting comparisons aren't unwarranted. Filth is adapted from Trainspotting author Irvine Welsh's novel by the same name. Welsh relishes in portraying characters that dwell in a miasma of skullduggery, depravity and obscenity; scum of society who are highly puerile and cynical, almost compulsively on the verge of becoming (or already full-fledged) junkies. He glorifies their satirical and putrid views on society from the protagonist's POV, and then proceed to strip the reason behind it all, layer by layer, until we see the person behind this facade of filth and realize they're indeed as human and vulnerable as we all are. Enter James McAvoy, fresh from his Danny Boyle treatment in Trance, which also sees him warping in and out of dimensions through mind-bending hypnosis, right into the snort-line-paved streets of Edinburgh, which he polices as Detective Sergeant Bruce Robertson.
Now Bruce as a career guy is as ruthless as we all know backstabbing, ego-whoring, jealous, arse-hole-savoring work-colleagues. He 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. We all have one such person in our work-lives whom we'd be happy to see rot inside a hole in the ground before he/she gains an upper hand in the less than congenial work-environment. Bruce as a human being seems even worse. He wallows in his pantomime-style villainy, always seeming to be tipping us the wink as he dreams up his next act of skullduggery, running amok unhindered and unimpeded with his charismatic body language and of course, his Sergeant badge. He takes such relish in his own bad behavior 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. Jon S 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.
McAvoy, who has gained weight and grown a scrappy ginger beard for the role, is fearless in his rip-roaring awfulness, yet conveys just enough of the chaos inside Robertson to suggest that – buried somewhere very deep – there is a seam of moral understanding. His wife and daughter have left him; his mental health is disintegrating; and a childhood trauma has convinced him of his own essential worthlessness. He has a bad case of the madonna-whore complex, but when a sweet-faced madonna appears before him (in the shape of Joanne Froggatt), she cannot make much dent in the headlong narrative of despair.
That Filth works is largely due to the fact that McAvoy is reversing the formula from Trance and Punch: there, we were asked to buy the good guy and take the possibility of the character’s darker moral shading on faith. Here, though, Robertson is so monstrous that the only way to get through it is to hope there is some glimmer of McAvoy’s usual humanity at the end of it, something Baird teases us with throughout. Around him, a great supporting cast has fun stretching the limits of realism: Eddie Marsan’s hilarious Clifford, a dim-witted mug we should feel sorry for but, somehow, don’t; Shirley Henderson as his mousy, secret goer of a wife; and Kate Dickie as Robertson’s bit-on-the-side, who enjoys a bit of “cutting the gas off”.
It’s a hard momentum to maintain, juggling all manner of extremes and digressions, but Baird does corral this berserk carnival into a cohesive narrative. As Robertson’s cool, calm amorality crosses the line into full-blown madness, only the strait-laced Amanda Drummond (Imogen Poots) sees what’s really going on, and he knows it, driving the misogynistic, domineering cop crazy. The final reveal brings us full circle, and though the pay-off might be tough for some to swallow, it is certainly in keeping with a film that sets out to be larger than life from the off.
The director, Jon Baird, has a knack for catching the visual grotesquery of hedonism without extinguishing its nauseous exhilaration: he leads the audience through scenes of rage-fuelled sex and desperate substance abuse like the implacable organiser of a particularly debauched, unhappy stag night. Indeed, there’s a peculiar extremism to Scottish self-destruction, faithfully documented by Welsh, perhaps because it has to work so hard to drown out the vocal little Puritan lurking in the Scottish psyche.
The central performance works superbly but the film around it doesn’t, quite: its wider landscape doesn’t convince in the way that the one in Trainspotting did. Even allowing for the hectic stylistic stunts – the crazy psychiatrist, the visions of pigs and tapeworms – there is something off-kilter about its structure and tone. Filth often gets bogged down in its yearning to shock, letting the plot slide away, and its criminal villains feel weirdly under-drawn next to Robertson.
In the face of common opinion that it simply wouldn't work, and after years of development, Filth turns out to be a near masterpiece, whose recognition as such is only made less likely by the inevitable comparison with Trainspotting. It is a ballsy adaption of a hugely admired novel, as unpredictable as its central character and charged with the vitriolic energy of the author's writing. A well balanced juggling act of tones; in lesser hands this would have been a mess! It is not always a pleasant watch, but like the central character, it finds its way to a strange, engaging and even rather emotional resolution. Whilst there is likely to be a good forty percent of casual viewers who are left completely cold, the remaining will see a successful, proudly Scottish film that is by turns dark, shocking, comical and moving, which also goes out on an incredibly catchy and surprisingly fitting 70's hit! And do watch out for Clint Mansell's cover of Radiohead's Creep syncing to the film's most darkest point.