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James McAvoy takes a depraved walk on the wild side in this gleefully lurid adaptation of a cult novel by Trainspotting author Irvine Welsh. In an impressive shift away from his usual clean-cut roles, the young Scot plays a corrupt police officer riding a drug-fuelled rollercoaster to mental breakdown, roughing up his boyish good looks into a boozy, sweaty, red-eyed, fuzzy-bearded monster oddly reminiscent of Russell Crowe. Detective Bruce Robertson is a diabolically unpleasant anti-hero, but somehow McAvoy and writer-director Jon S. Baird makes us feel sympathy for the devil.
First published in 1998, Filth is a scabrously funny gothic-noir thriller about a sociopathic Edinburgh cop with an insatiable appetite for kinky sex, illicit drugs and back-stabbing office politics. The title has a double meaning, for Brits at least, being an insulting slang term for the police. Baird’s film version struggles to match the book in sordid detail, but it is bursting with manic energy and savage humor. Beginning a staggered theatrical release in Scotland later this week, followed by the rest of Britain next week, overseas audience potential should be healthy based on positive advance buzz and McAvoy’s strong track record, not to mention a highly marketable sleaze factor.
Welsh has not been lucky with movie credits since Danny Boyle sanitized Trainspotting into a pop-culture landmark in 1996. A handful of further adaptations followed, but all struggled to escape the long shadow of Boyle’s film, and most sank without trace. Filth enjoyed a slow and troubled journey to the screen, at one point passing through Harvey Weinstein’s hands. When the story’s darker elements gave studios cold feet, Baird and his team pulled together their modest budget from multiple European investors, with McAvoy trading a pay cut for a producer’s credit.
Tapping into a rich literary-cinematic lineage that includes Bad Lieutenant and American Psycho, McAvoy portrays Robertson as both charismatic charmer and unreliable narrator, occasionally breaking the fourth wall to share a sick smile with the audience. Gunning for a big promotion at work, the Machiavellian detective uses methods that include drugging, bullying and smearing his rivals with malicious gossip. Outside the office, his abusive behavior is much worse, even stooping to murder and sexual assault. But behind his boorish bigotry and alpha-male confidence, he is also on the verge of nervous collapse under a heavy burden of marital problems and guilty secrets.
Stylistically, Baird borrows less from the zippy rock-video aesthetic of Trainspotting and more from the surreal comic pageantry of Terry Gilliam — especially in Robertson’s nightmarish hallucinations of animal-headed people and in the fantasy dialogues with his swollen-browed Australian psychiatrist, played by the ever reliable Jim Broadbent. The soundtrack is also less self-consciously cool than Boyle’s iconic youth-culture movie, deploying vintage soft-rock and Europop with a keen sense of irony. German pop diva Nena’s kitsch 1983 classic, “99 Red Balloons” makes a welcome appearance during a sleazy sex-and-drugs binge in Hamburg.
The colorful ensemble cast is full of strange echoes and in-jokes. Shirley Henderson, who plays the sexually frustrated housewife-vamp that Robertson both menaces and seduces, is a veteran of Trainspotting. Eddie Marsan plays her geeky accountant husband, marking the pair’s second screen marriage this year after the British TV miniseries Southcliffe. Jamie Bell and Gary Lewis also co-star as Robertson’s police colleagues — Billy Elliott and his dad, reunited 13 years later. McAvoy’s sister Joy McAvoy and the film’s producer Trudie Styler — aka Mrs Sting — both have cameos. Former Starsky and Hutch star David Soul pops up, singing a snatch of his 1977 hit “Silver Lady” in a winningly silly drug-dream sequence.
Baird sticks quite faithfully to Welsh’s novel, though he dilutes its relentlessly nasty tone and changes some minor plot points. Robertson’s estranged wife, Carole, plays the same small but crucial role as she did in the book, but one of the other narrators — a talking tapeworm inside the detective’s guts — has been dropped, clearly an experimental literary device deemed too far. A few other unsavory details, notably those involving the sickly state of Robertson’s penis, have been discreetly excised too.
Baird and McAvoy also give Robertson a lot more backstory than the book did, even allowing him a glimmer of redemptive empathy when his evil schemes start to backfire. The death of his beloved brother in childhood, his father’s bitter disapproval, his broken marriage — all are revealed during the final act as clumsy connect-the-dots psychological motivation. Admittedly the book’s jarringly bleak finale remains, though the context is softened, with a contrite Robertson at least trying to make amends for his misdeeds instead of going out in a blaze of unrepentant Butch-and-Sundance glory.
These more humane shadings allow McAvoy to give a rounded and sympathetic performance, but they also dampen the bracingly malevolent shotgun blast of Welsh’s book. The bizarre closing credits, which retell the story with animated animals while a cheesy cover version of Radiohead’s alienation anthem “Creep” plays, come dangerously close to over-explaining the film. These are clumsy decisions, treating the movie audience as children in need of neat moral lessons.
But as an inexperienced director making just his second feature, Baird can be forgiven for a handful of careless and ham-fisted touches. Filth is still a hugely entertaining breath of foul air fuelled by McAvoy’s impressively ugly star performance.
Production companies: Steel Mill Pictures, Logie Pictures, Altitude Film Entertainment, Egoli Tossell Film, Entre Chien et Loup, Film i Vast, Filmgate Films, Maven Pictures
Producers: Mark Amin, Christian Angermayer, Jon S. Baird, Stephen Mao, Ken Marshall, James McAvoy, Jens Meurer, Celine Rattray, Trudie Styler
Starring: James McAvoy, Jamie Bell, Imogen Poots, Jim Broadbent, Joanne Froggatt, Shirley Henderson, Eddie Marsan, John Sessions
Director: Jon S. Baird
Writer: Jon S. Baird, from the novel by Irvine Welsh
Cinematographer: Matthew Jensen
Editor: Mark Eckersley
Production Designer: Mike Gunn
Music: Clint Mansell
Sales company: Sierra/Affinity
Rated 18 (U.K.), 99 minutes
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