Cinematic adaptations of Irvine Welsh’s dark twisted tales have enjoyed mixed success. Danny Boyle’s riotous nineties cult classic Trainspotting hit the nail on the head with his hilarious yet at times harrowing depiction of Welsh’s Edinburgh “skagboys”. Ewan McGregor’s performance as Renton and his disillusioned “Choose Life” rant was a defining moment in British cinema. Unfortunately, Paul McGuiggan’s The Acid House (1998) and the Canadian offering of Ecstasy (2011) didn’t fare as well.”
Now it’s Jon S. Baird’s turn now to open fire on us with his take on one of Welsh’s sickest, darkest chronicles, Filth and its protagonist the racist, homophobic, misogynistic and deranged DC Bruce Robertson but has he succeeded in immersing us fully into Welsh’s creation?
Filth is fast and furious from the outset as a coked-up Bruce Robertson swaggers through the streets of Edinburgh, disparaging its society as he scorns youths eating fast food on corners, gives the finger to a little boy and humiliates a homeless man. The irony in his disapproval of what he sees as these lowlifes is soon made clear when Bruce introduces himself to us in all his glory. The ambitious DC unveils his cunning plan to bring down his colleagues at the Lothian Constabulary in the race for promotion to Detective Inspector pitting them against each other using a strategy he refers to “the Games”. Robertson’s drug and drink fuelled debauchery is flung at us in a series of depraved vignettes and there are no holds barred. He regularly meets his colleagues wife Chrissie (Katie Dickie, appropriately gaunt and pathetic) for a spot of erotic asphyxiation and then tosses her aside with distain. He makes obscene phone calls to Bunty (a very funny Bernadette Henderson), wife of his sole friend and fellow Freemason Clifford Blades while at the same time pretending to investigate who the perpetrator is. In a scene that is thankfully less graphic than the book, he blackmails the under-age daughter of a lawyer into performing fellatio on him and then describes her attempt as similar to a cheese grater. Vile and shocking as his behaviour is, for the first half an hour there are lots of laughs albeit of the darker variety and viewers may even be charmed by Robertson as he addresses the camera occasionally with a knowing wink.
But less than halfway through Filth, the tone changes drastically as Bruce starts showing signs of severe mental derangement and his own awareness of this makes it all the more terrifying. As he cowers on a stairwell with rival for promotion Amanda Hammond (Imogen Poots) he tells her “there’s something seriously wrong with me” and then just when she thinks she might be getting through to him, he turns on her like an animal. We too are given brief opportunities to relate to Robertson when we witness him try to save the life of a young woman’s husband and then subsequently befriending her and when we are subtly fed details of his disintegrated marriage, there are moments of sympathy. Though unsatisfyingly jarring , Boards schizophrenic jump from black comedy to dire tragedy and despair has a function, demonstrating to us the severity of Bruce’s bipolar disorder. His hallucinations are genuinely creepy and reminiscent of those in Gilliam’s “Fear and Loathing”. Characters faces take on those of wild animals and in one scene where the face of the pig from the cover of Welsh’s novel appears at the end of the bed, the eeriness reminds us of the of Trainspotting’s gravity defying baby.
Baird’s direction is stylish and its immediacy expertly depicts the tone of Welsh’s novel with its disconcerting close-ups of McAvoy’s bloated face and eyes and raw scenes of sex and drug use. At times I felt it was all too fast though, the film rushed passed me in a blur- the ninety minutes feeling like a mere thirty. Again, this can also be seen as an attempt by Baird to further demonstrate how Bruce is losing his grip on reality and allow us to see events through his distorted reality.
Moving on to the cast, I feel I need to tread carefully when summing up McAvoy’s performance. No one could disagree that he was an unexpected choice for the role of Welsh’s anti-hero but with the help of some weight, a scraggy ginger-tinged beard and blood shot eyes along with an energetic and committed performance he made a pretty good fist of it. In fact I’m not sure there is any room for improvement in his performance. I just don’t think he was the right fit to encapsulate the Welsh’s Bruce Robertson in all his lurid glory. This is by no means a criticism of McAvoy’s range. He has proven his ability to play various roles in films such as X-Men: First Class, Trance, The Last King of Scotland and The Chronicles of Narnia (where he plays Mr.Tumnus the faun) to name but a few. No doubt the majority of viewers will think that Filth is shocking enough as it is, maybe it needed to up the stakes in its depravity in order to banish McAvoy’s clean cut image. Although viewers will be relieved to find that the unsavoury details of Robertson’s penis have been left out and instead of the tapeworm that takes over the narration and Bruce’s body in the novel, Jim Broadbent plays his whacky imaginary psychiatrist who fills in the gaps for us, sparing us the details of Robertson’s intestinal illnesses that arise as a result of a diet of chips and cocaine and instead limiting it to a cheeky fart in the first scene!
There are solid performances from the rest of the cast. As Bruce’s put upon best friend who he loves in a twisted way, Eddie Marsan nails the characters pitiful revere for his unfaithful friend. John Sessions succeeds in making us cringe as Bruce’s pathetically manipulated boss, an aspiring writer whose office boast a large Apocalypse Now poster.
The only slip up was the bad casting of Imogen Poots as Amanda Drummond, the only female Robertson doesn’t try to bed in the novel. Welsh’s Robertson describes her as “uptight” with a “flat chest and frizzy hair” and this is hardly how one would describe Poots.
Whatever way you look at it, Filth is a roller-coaster ride of a movie and entertaining from start to finish. It’s as faithful to its origin as it can be without terrifying a mainstream audience. Sure, it’s no Trainspotting but with his defining adaptation, Danny Boyle has possibly sealed the fate of any attempt to put Welsh work on the screen.
Originally posted on Krank