McAvoy excels in Irvine Welsh's hallucinogenic corrupt cop comedy-drama
Boasting a career-high performance from the ever-impressive and increasingly versatile James McAvoy, debut writer/director Jon S. Baird's adaptation of Irvine "Trainspotting" Welsh's 1998 novel of the same name is an expectedly dark and frequently unpleasant ride, laced with black humour, brimming with sex and drug use, and all wrapped around a lead character who is loathsome, but in an undeniably intoxicating way. Whilst McAvoy's Detective Sergeant Bruce Robertson may only be his bipolar Brit half-cousin, there are clear parallels between him and Harvey Keitel's Bad Lieutenant in Abel Ferrara's equally hard-to-watch indie gem.
D.S. Bruce Robertson is looking to nab the latest promotion spot that has opened up in his department, but in order to do so, he plans to undermine each and every one of his co-workers, playing off their weaknesses and manipulating them at every turn. They should probably be grateful, he only manipulates his friends, saving the outright abuse for his enemies. The task proves to be particularly difficult, however, and, despite the weak will of his boss, it is potentially an impossible one. You see Robertson's own worst enemy is himself.
Amoral, Machiavellian, misanthropic, sexist, racist, and psychopathic, McAvoy's filthy Detective Sergeant could give Keitel's Bad Lieutenant a run for his money.
Welsh's novels have proven particularly difficult to adapt, with only Trainspotting really striking gold although, it could be said that a large part of that might have been due to right time, right place. A fair amount has changed in the best part of two decades (although The Acid House snuck in on the coat-tails of Trainspotting, it promptly disappeared without a trace) and making nineties book material both relevant and appealing to an audience twenty years later is a tricky thing. 2011's Ecstasy proved as much and, potentially, Filth could have hit the same snag were it not for one thing: the Scottish
Whether you want to level the credit at the Scottish setting, the Scottish star or the Scottish director, the film rises and falls on its heritage. For starters, the setting allows us to more easily believe in the antics; or, more aptly, suspend our disbelief – after all, it feels like the characters are living in the 80s, and it’s only a few nods here and there, like the modern technology, that sets the record straight. In a strange sort of way, this helps Welsh’s arguably dated novel feel more suitably period, even if it’s technically not.
Baird too, for a fresh new director, is remarkably comfortable handling the material. There’s no doubt that he takes some of his visual and stylistic cues from Trainspotting – which is still the benchmark Welsh adaptation – and also maintains that same blend of very very dark humour, as further enhanced by an perfectly keyed voiceover from the lead character.
Then there’s that actor. James McAvoy. The star of the show. Without him, an argument could be put forward that this film would simply not be the same. McAvoy’s gone from strength to strength over the years – I still remember him being excellent in Shameless, and now we get to look forward to him resuming his young Professor X role later this year – and he remains determined to be unpredictable in his film choices, taking some brutal, painful and frequently adult roles, and attacking them with fiery passion and unrestrained aplomb. Even in Danny Boyle’s hit-and-miss Trance, his is an atypical character, another interesting role to choose.
Filth is another level, giving McAvoy an opportunity to deliver an absolute career best performance.
Dirty, dishevelled, with blotched skin, greasy hair and an unkempt beard, McAvoy revels in this disgusting character, who somehow, despite his grungy, deplorable looks, manner and behaviour, is utterly intoxicating in his exploits, luring you in for his frequently laugh-out-loud journey, and, once committed, making sure you stay there right the way through to the heavy final act.
The supporting cast struggle to keep up with McAvoy’s powerhouse pomp; with Eddie Marsan sniffling his way through in an atypically humble cuckolded role; Jamie Bell snorting along as McAvoy’s cocaine-Hoover partner; Imogen Poots defying her youth as the lone girl in the department; John Sessions as the weak-willed boss; and the likes of The Descent’s Shauna McDonald, Red Road’s Katie Dickie, and Cloud Atlas’s Jim Broadbent rounding out the cast as wife, girlfriend and psychiatrist to the lead character.
It’s all about McAvoy’s Bruce Robertson, though, and only as it should be. Plenty of films recently have dealt in excess, not least the equally intoxicating but unfortunately resoundingly overlong Scorese/DiCaprio Wolf of Wall Street, but thankfully Filth attempts to paint a richer character design beyond just bravado and pure visceral sex and drug excess. It attempts to develop insight into the lead character, drop-feeding us his darker history, and building in a slow-burning, cautious fashion towards what is an undeniably shock ending. Whether or not that ending particularly works, is a different question entirely, but it’s more hearty, satisfying and meaningful than just playing the story for dark laughs alone.
Filth is certainly not going to be to everybody’s tastes. It is Welsh, after all, and Baird appears keen to remain faithful to the source work, warts and all. Unfortunately, this makes it an oftentimes downright unpleasant watch whose dark humour eventually subsides in favour of just darkness. It survives as an adaptation thanks to some innovative low budget directorial flourishes, a great accompanying score by regular Darren ‘Black Swan’ Aronofsky collaborator Clint Mansell, and, above all, a career-high powerhouse lead performance from James McAvoy. These are the reasons you should watch it.
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