Detective Sergeant Bruce Robertson (McAvoy), a corrupt, cocaine-snorting, hard-drinking Edinburgh cop, is angling for a promotion to detective inspector, and is prepared to secure it by any means necessary. After a messy marriage split, however, his mind might not be as sharp as it was...
Nearly 20 years on, Danny Boyle’s adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s cult novel Trainspotting remains the benchmark for crossover British cinema, breaking with the tradition that the UK’s only hit exports were period films involving butlers, women in corsets and furtive encounters between posh men in suede shoes. Loud, dirty and — in its humour — very, very wrong, it saluted everything the Tory government wanted to sweep under the carpet back then. A sequel, Porno, has yet to materialise; instead came a brace of inferior Welsh adaptations, The Acid House and Ecstasy, that both flopped.
The thinking, perhaps, was that Welsh’s time had been and gone, swept away with Blur vs. Oasis, Union Jack dresses and the rest of Tony Blair’s Cool Britannia. But Jon S. Baird’s take on the writer’s third novel, Filth, published in 1998, suggests there’s commercial life in this still fiercely independent writer yet. Its aggressively satirical view of the police does age the material slightly, but the dark energy of Welsh’s wit hasn’t dated much at all, and seeing much of it channelled by a near-unrecognisable James McAvoy may bring him to a whole new audience.
With Detective Sergeant Bruce Robertson, McAvoy has finally grown into the kind of role he was looking for in his last two movies, Trance and Welcome To The Punch. In neither did he quite seem to have the heft: Trance, especially, required a diametric shift in character that would be almost impossible for any actor. Here, though, he really goes for it, unburdened by the need to be the pretty-boy hero. Nothing about Robertson is likable. He is a bully and a monster; snatching a kid’s balloon and letting it float away is the least of it in a film that sees him demand oral sex from an underage girl and frame his gullible “best friend” for a crime of his own doing.
That Filth works is largely due to the fact that McAvoy is reversing the formula from Trance and Punch: there, we were asked to buy the good guy and take the possibility of the character’s darker moral shading on faith. Here, though, Robertson is so monstrous that the only way to get through it is to hope there is some glimmer of McAvoy’s usual humanity at the end of it, something Baird teases us with throughout. Around him, a great supporting cast has fun stretching the limits of realism: Eddie Marsan’s hilarious Clifford, a dim-witted mug we should feel sorry for but, somehow, don’t; Shirley Henderson as his mousy, secret goer of a wife; and Kate Dickie as Robertson’s bit-on-the-side, who enjoys a bit of “cutting the gas off”.
It’s a hard momentum to maintain, juggling all manner of extremes and digressions, but Baird does corral this berserk carnival into a cohesive narrative. As Robertson’s cool, calm amorality crosses the line into full-blown madness, only the strait-laced Amanda Drummond (Imogen Poots) sees what’s really going on, and he knows it, driving the misogynistic, domineering cop crazy. The final reveal brings us full circle, and though the pay-off might be tough for some to swallow, it is certainly in keeping with a film that sets out to be larger than life from the off.
It doesn’t have Trainspotting’s surprise factor, but Filth does have a better handle on shock value than its predecessors, thanks to Baird’s steady hand on the throttle. And where Trainspotting was an ensemble piece, this is McAvoy’s show, with a delirious, demonic performance that will surely see D. I. Robertson join Malcolm McDowell’s Alex DeLarge and Tom Hardy’s Charles Bronson in the pantheon of great British sociopaths.
A bulked-up James McAvoy dominates the screen in this razor-sharp Glasgow smile of a black comedy, packed with aberrant sex, hard drugs and maximum David Soul.