The novels of Irvine Welsh are often noted for the surrealist qualities which make them seemingly very difficult to envisage on the big screen. Despite this, Danny Boyle’s adaptation of Trainspotting is firmly ensconced in the pantheon of great British films, with several of its alternately horrifying and rapturous scenes embedded in the public consciousness. Now another of Welsh’s peculiar odes to Scotland has hit cinemas, in the form of Filth.
This novel and film centres around James McAvoy’s Bruce Robertson, a police officer desperate to secure a promotion, and frantically attempting to put his competitors for the advancement out of the running. Bruce is not a man without baggage, however, and it is clear from the off that his psychology will be the most compelling aspect of the film. He is dealing with aspects of his grim past which only become clear as the film speeds towards its conclusion, and his methods of coping are various. Swinging from hard drugs, to adultery and other depravity, the only difference between him and some of the criminals he encounters appears to be the badge in his pocket, flashed liberally at all those he encounters. The ensemble of coppers around him, played by a no longer fresh-faced Jamie Bell and Imogen Poots among others, is each corrupt in their own little way, and the atmosphere of the office is poisonous.
The film’s atmosphere is engaging, with the switches from unbelievably dark humour into deathly serious drama difficult to predict, at time jarring, but never unwelcome. Bruce’s dealings with gangsters, children and prostitutes are explosive and threatening, and his manipulation of his colleagues is entertaining but guilt-inducing – they are almost all significantly more likeable than our anti-hero. Yet McAvoy plays Bruce quite perfectly, laced with threat but also with a disguised vulnerability, quite convinced of all he does, yet clearly ignoring the voice telling him he’s insane. His dreamlike interactions with the version of his psychologist, played by Jim Broadbent, are revealing and disturbing.
Director Jon S. Baird and cinematographer Matthew Jensen also succeed in developing Welsh’s novel into a visually interesting piece of work. The use of colour is immediately noticeable, with drained blues and greys staining Bruce’s view of the world, while all the seedier destinations are splashed in colour, from the red lights of a brothel to an estate with shocking red walls. The hallucinations Bruce occasionally endures are as horrific as Welsh doubtless envisaged them, with Bruce’s view of himself in the mirror as a pig-headed man at once a call-back to the novel’s cover art and to the self-disgust that Bruce tries to suppress.
James McAvoy’s performance cannot be praised too much. It is brave and without reservations, and he totally dominates Filth in a similarly impressive manner to Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine. They should both find themselves on the Academy’s shortlists, whether or not collecting the Oscar. The rest of Filth is not far behind McAvoy; it is a completely grim film, but also an absorbing one. It is undeniable that this darkness will alienate some, and put others off, but for those who can persevere through it, Filth is most rewarding.