A visceral adaptation of the novel by Trainspotting author Irvine Welsh, Filth presents a seedily subjective view of the life of psychopathic Edinburgh detective Bruce Robertson (James McAvoy, playing drastically and effectively against type).
Though the film centres loosely around a police investigation into the murder of a Japanese student, Welsh and writer-director Jon S. Baird focus mainly upon Bruce’s constant transgressions, from indulging in his many vices (including cocaine, liquor, prostitutes and abuse of power) to his amoral scheming (most notably his callous attempts discredit his competition for an upcoming promotion).
Like Trainspotting, the film paints a lurid picture of a sordid and petty Edinburgh, but this time it is a world overcome not by drug addicts but by racist, misogynist, homophobic and violent men, many of whom appear to work in the city’s police force. In fact, even given the title, audiences may be surprised at quite how squalid the characters and events in this film often appear. However, it would be a mistake to dismiss Filth for this reason.
At first the film appears to delight in its ability to offend, taking and relishing every chance for explicitness, and playing this offensiveness for (oftentimes uncomfortable) laughs. Its characters are, by and large, contemptible, and Bruce is perhaps the cruellest of them all. In one of the film’s most memorable lines he reveals that he joined the police force not in order to tackle police oppression, but rather because he ‘wanted to be a part of it.’
But after a sometimes unpleasant first half Baird deftly achieves what had previously seemed impossible. Despite the many foul acts that Bruce commits, and the stream of bigoted beliefs that he spouts, the filmmaker manages to mould his character into a relatable human being, and therefore makes the film more than simply a mean-spirited vehicle for offense. In fact, in its second half Filth becomes surprisingly affecting. The audience are forced into considering that the cruelty they have been accepting as comedy for the best part of an hour is perhaps no laughing matter, and Baird pulls off a powerful and sorely-needed reversal of expectations.
McAvoy shows an admirable commitment to conveying the most unpleasant depths of his character, and given his popularity in roles such as the clean-cut and steadfast Robbie in Atonement, his willingness to appear as undignified as possible proves refreshing. He is ably supported by strong performances from a range of British character actors, including Jim Broadbent, Jamie Bell, Shirley Henderson, and most satisfyingly, Eddie Marsan, who throws himself headfirst into role of Bruce’s browbeaten best friend.
Any new attempt at filming an Irvine Welsh novel will inevitably suffer from difficult comparisons with the first and most successful adaptation of his work. Filth may not be Trainspotting, and it is highly unlikely that it will be as beloved by filmgoers in decades to come, but it is still a striking and darkly effective film.
Filth (2013), directed by Jon S. Baird, is released in UK cinemas by Lionsgate, Certificate 18.