‘Filth’ movie review: James McAvoy goes all out in Irvine Welsh adaptation

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The scummiest, most depressing Christmas movie you’ll ever see (though Terry Zwigoff’s Bad Santa probably comes close), Jon S. Baird’s Filth, from the acclaimed ‘unfilmable’ novel by Irvine Welsh (Trainspotting) is bolstered by a tour-de-force, balls-to-the-wall lead performance by James McAvoy but falters in just one regard: it slightly sanitizes Welsh’s original vision. 

That’s right: it ain’t scummy or depressing enough.

Not that the content has been altered: oh no, this is still a depraved portrait of Bruce “Robbo” Robertson (McAvoy), an alcoholic, drug addicted, sex-crazed Edinburgh police officer who drinks, smokes, snorts, screws, sexually harasses, abuses, and even… no, spare me the dignity. When you think he can’t go any further, he takes that extra step, Bad Lieutenant-style. 

Robbo screws over his colleagues and friends on his way to a coveted promotion during the Christmas season as he handles a pair of investigations: the murder of a Japanese student, who was brutally beaten to death by a roving gang of street thugs, and a crank caller who keeps abusing the wife (Shirley Henderson) of his good “friend” Clifford Blades (Eddie Marsan). 

Of course, it’s Robertson who’s the caller. He’s also behind most of the other sexist, homophobic, and otherwise depraved plotting in the film, much of which he orchestrates to secure that promotion ahead of colleagues Ray Lennox (Jamie Bell), Amanda Drummond (Imogen Poots), Peter Inglis (Emun Elliott), and Gus Bain (Gary Lewis). 

But in some ways, we come to love Robbo. He’s that uninhibited, evil little imp inside of all of us, and while he completely deserves everything that life is dishing out to him, we can’t help but feel something when we see the pain in his eyes that has resulted from his own internal problems, here depicted through a non-existent relationship with his wife and daughter. 

And wow, did McAvoy open my eyes here: I’ve liked the actor in The Last King of Scotland, Atonement, and other features, but this is one of those batshit insane, can’t-take-your-eyes-off-of-him star turns a la Christian Bale in American Psycho or Johnny Depp in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. McAvoy makes the entire movie: whenever he’s onscreen (which is almost always), this thing is really alive.

But here’s the problem: Filth is filmed in this gleefully manic, hyper-stylized vision that distances the viewer from the reality of what’s unfolding onscreen. There’s the deeply-saturated color palette, blisteringly-fast coke-fueled pacing, trippy dream sequences, and even some Kubrickian Clockwork Orange overtones.  

In other words, writer-director Baird has gone to lengths to re-create the drug-induced “fun” feel of Robertson’s debauchery, but in doing so he misses out on the realism of it all: the real-world consequences of Robertson’s actions that might have truly hit us in the gut. 

That’s still OK – this is a fun, and often very funny ride – it’s just not as hard-hitting as it ought to be given Welsh’s original material. Next to Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting – which, while still stylized, is positively neo-realist by comparison – Filth is lacking in pure guttural impact. While there’s plenty of vomit up on the screen, Baird doesn’t induce the same from his audience. 

Filth is aided by a soundtrack that mixes in Christmas favorites with some forgotten classics (The Shirelles’ Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow highlights one of the film’s most unforgettable scenes) and an excellent original score from Clint Mansell. 

It’s not Trainspotting, and it’s not quite the adaptation of the novel that I wanted it to be, but Filth is still quite a piece of work, and McAvoy’s performance really is something to see. Just beware the thick Scottish brogue. 

And remember: same rules apply.

Filth

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Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky has been writing about the Prague film scene and reviewing films in print and online media since 2005. A member of the Online Film Critics Society, you can also catch his musings on life in Prague at expats.cz and tips on mindfulness sourced from ancient principles at MaArtial.com.

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