Filth (2013)


A manic Edinburgh police detective manipulates and hallucinates his way through the festive season in this adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s novel.


Acid House by Alexa Dalby

CAUTION: Here be spoilers.

Those of a nervous disposition should look away now. If you’ve seen Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting, probably still the seminal Irvine Welsh adaptation, you’ll have some idea of what to expect from Filth. It’s Trainspotting – only more so, and it’s hard to resist the temptation to call it Trainspotting on acid, rather than heroin and Acid House. Filth is a manic, multicoloured, sordid, comic, substance-fuelled trawl through the depths of human behaviour, and it’s totally gripping. But Filth is the savage depiction of one man’s spectacular mental meltdown rather than the entwined ensemble and social comment piece that was Trainspotting.

James McAvoy slams down a tour de force performance as scrubby-bearded, morally and physically disgusting bent cop Detective Sergeant Bruce Robinson as he lies, schemes and manipulates his way towards – he thinks – a promotion. “Nobody plays games like me,” says his voiceover narration, and that’s also his justification for the lying, cheating tricks he plays to sabotage any competition from his detective colleagues and rivals. There are great supporting performances from Jamie Bell as the gullible rookie, Peter Inglis as a possibly gay colleague whom he torments, and John Sessions as his superior officer with screenwriting ambitions.

Cutting a comet-like swathe through Scotland’s grey Christmas and New Year period, and subverting any notions of Scots pride or goodwill along the way, Robinson is ostensibly investigating the gang murder of a Japanese student in an underpass, which we see at start of the film, with a witness who flees the scene. Amid Robinson’s whirlwind of abusive behaviour, he finds time for sex with a colleague’s wife, a bizarre affair with Bunty (Shirley Henderson), the wife of trusting Bladesey (Eddie Marsan), a dweeby accountant who is also his Masonic brother, and whom he pressures into an explicitly dirty weekend in Hamburg brothels simply, it seems, in order to debase him.

Amid Robinson’s surrealistic hallucinations are sessions with Jim Broadbent, his Australian psychiatrist, which take off into fantasy dialogues. In fact, the film’s hectic succession of images is so extreme that reality and fantasy are never far apart. Making dirty phone calls as, and masturbating over, mask-headed ‘comedian’ Frank Sidebottom, or David Soul singing Silver Lady in a drug/dream sequence in a taxi – where did these spring from?

Robinson is called a “lying, cheating, shagging bastard”, and he is. He extorts sex from vulnerable police crime witnesses (and then criticises their delivery of it). He’s corrupt, misogynistic, homophobic, sexist, racist – the list of -ists could go on and on. But midway, the film starts to delve into his underlying grief and loss. It reveals the breakdown of his marriage and departure of his wife as he weeps over his home videos, and his unresolved guilt at the childhood death in an accident of his younger brother. Imogen Poots, crisply efficient as his only female colleague, hits home with a dose of reality about his ongoing breakdown that’s blindingly obvious to everyone but himself, and reminds him of the man he once was, and the career he is now losing. But, instead, Robinson’s sociopathic antics escalate via cross-dressing and torture into one great non-stop blaring howl of despair that has a bleak and lonely appointment with a noose on New Year’s Day – as the doorbell unexpectedly rings.

This is Jon S. Baird’s second film – his first was Cass, based on the true life story of an adopted child who goes on to become a feared football hooligan – another drama of an extreme individual. In Filth, McAvoy, most recently in X-Men: First Class and Welcome To The Punch and playing against type in films such as Atonement, succeeds in conveying both the highs – mainly chemical – and the moral abysses that make up his larger-than-life character, making him, as the film develops, not entirely loathsome. After Filth he went on to the West End theatre to play an acclaimed, very physical version of Macbeth, perhaps liberated by his film exploits. Filth – the title is a play on words, it’s genuinely filthy and also slang for police – hits you right between the eyes, transports you bodily into someone else’s fevered imagination and leaves you with images you can’t forget. It’s a transgressive, transcendent jumble that takes you on an extraordinary journey at a breakneck pace, though it’s one that may leave audiences divided.

Filth is released on 4th October 2013 in the UK

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