One thing we resolved early on, having read around on the subject a little: to try, try, try to get through just the first sentence of our review of “Filth,” the Jon S. Baird-directed adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s novel, without mentioning “Trainspotting.” So, obviously, we’re pretty disappointed with ourselves. But disappointment is somewhat the order of the day, unfortunately, as it’s a comparison that occurred to us, not often to the benefit of “Filth,” throughout our viewing of the film. However, Danny Boyle’s modern classic doth bestride the world of the Irvine Welsh adaptation like a colossus, its shadow seemingly impossible to escape from, so there is a glass-half-full way of looking at it: “Filth” is undoubtedly better than also-rans “The Acid House” and “Ecstasy.” In fact, when it comes to capturing some of the gonzo, amoral, substance-fueled verve that Welsh’s novels can display, “Filth” can take the silver medal with its head held relatively high. And that it can is largely down to two things: all the rest of the cast, and James McAvoy.
We’re fans of McAvoy anyway, and his commitment here to bigoted, self-obsessed sociopath Detective Sergeant Bruce Robertson is a thing to behold. Spitting sexist, racist and homophobic slurs as he whores, adulterizes, hallucinates, blackmails, boozes and cokes his way around Edinburgh, nominally pursuing a murder case but actually furthering his own labyrinthine agenda for advancement, he’s a force of nature, if nature was a really, really obnoxious and corrupt bipolar Scottish cop. What’s particularly wondrous is that McAvoy hits all the broad notes the character gives him as he indulges the vices of all of those around him the better to manipulate them, but never lets us forget the wide streak of insecurity, of pathetic weakness, on which all the bluster and swagger is shakily built. Whether coercing an underage girl into giving him a blowjob, or “cry-wanking” over video footage of his wife before prank-calling a woman in the persona of Mancunian TV character Frank Sidebottom, there’s no boundary of decency or self-respect that the character does not transgress, and nowhere McAvoy is not willing to bring him.
However that brings us to our overriding issue with the film. While McAvoy’s Robertson is a hurricane of devastating manic episodes, of chemical highs and increasingly deranged lows, Baird’s movie as a whole doesn’t go for broke in quite the same way. Early on the energy level starts to lag, with the editing feeling just so slightly slack and off-the-pace, and the film’s surreal episodes, like the fantasy sequences of Bruce’s wife Carol (Shauna Macdonald) and the interludes with the fictionalized version of his doctor (Jim Broadbent), more often than not, braking the momentum entirely. The musical soundtrack doesn’t help this either, whether employed for ironic counterpoint purposes like Shakin’ Stevens’ “Merry Christmas Everyone” or for on-the-nose commentary like Clint Mansell’s “Creep” cover, the cuts are often so bland that they just don’t make much of an impact. Somehow the songs manage to be so MOR that they don’t even quite work as kitsch, though an unexpected cameo by David Soul as a taxi driver singing his own “Silver Lady” does perk up one of the fantasy sequences immeasurably. Overall though, the balls-to-the-wall brashness of the story just isn’t adequately reflected in a filmmaking approach that comes off, weirdly, as a little too tame for its subject .
It’s the greater pity because so many of the other elements are in place, especially the enjoyable, often sly, performances. The cast is pretty strong all round, with Jamie Bell good as ever and the great Eddie Marsan particularly terrific in a role that gives us a) a rare glimpse of heart in what is essentially a heartless endeavor and b) a brief, but hall-of-fame, vomit moment. And with Shirley Henderson on top, weird-sexually-starved form, along with Kate Dickie and Martin Compston, this film is as good a showcase for Scottish acting talent as we’ve seen, even if Compston, especially, is underserved. Elsewhere Imogen Poots impresses in a role that really amounts to one big scene with McAvoy, and in which she’s otherwise largely the straight man to the shenanigans that go on around her, while John Sessions brings just the right level of institutionalized, “respectable” bigotry to the character of Robertson’s superior officer.
“Plot” is probably a broad word for the series of ever-devolving escapades and encounters that eventually lead to Robertson’s complete unraveling, but here’s a brief introduction to it anyway: in line for a promotion which he’s convinced he can Machiavelli his way into, and which he’s sure will repair certain issues in his personal life, D.S. Robertson begins a campaign to systematically undermine each of his rivals (including Bell and Poots) for the position. Meantime, however, he’s tasked with solving the murder of a Japanese student which we know from the outset has some vague connection to his wife, while also manipulating a rich fellow Masonic Lodge member (Marsan) into a position of reliance. However as Robertson stops taking his prescription lithium (!), he starts seeing things and all his best laid plans begin to unspool horribly around him, as traumatic secrets both recent and childhood, bubble to the surface.
It’s still not one to bring your mum to, and there are a few good foul laughs and grisly grotesqueries along the way, but the supposed trangressiveness of “Filth” is not only undercut by the surprising moralism and pop psychology of its denouement, but also by the way it feels that Baird only just manages to grab the tiger of Welsh’s “unfilmable” novel by the tail and never quite wrestles it into submission. And that’s leaving aside, for fear of spoilers, the somewhat worrisome way the climax plays out in terms of the film’s politics, or more specifically what the film seems to assume of ours. It wouldn’t have made “Filth” a “better” film, but if “Trainspotting” didn’t exist, perhaps we wouldn’t be quite so aware of the ways in which “Filth” falls short—the kicky pace, propulsive soundtrack, and filmmaking confidence of Danny Boyle’s film are absent here and it feels like Welsh’s world needs that kind of unthrottled bravado to be successfully reborn as cinema. But even without that marker, while we might not know quite so clearly what was missing, we’d know something was: like the hot office secretary who’s duped into having sex by an enlarged photocopy, “Filth,” by not being quite as big and bad and ballsy as we’d hoped, left us unfulfilled. [B-/C+]
This is a reprint of our review from the film’s overseas release in the U.K., Ireland, Austria, Hungary, Germany and Switzerland last fall.