(c) Steel Mill Pictures
There were two reasons why I wasn’t expecting much from Filth, the recent film adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s 1998 novel about a depraved Scottish policeman.
Firstly, among Welsh’s books, Filth is the runt of the litter. From what people have told me, it was written at a period in Welsh’s career when he was, shall we say, distracted by his recreational pursuits. It was also, supposedly, banged out after the author had fallen foul of the Scottish police (in 1996 he was arrested for drunkenness at a football match) and was intended as his revenge on them. I don’t know how much truth there is in these tales about the circumstances of Filth’s writing, but I can almost believe them from the end result, which is a rambling, shapeless mess. It’s not unreadable and it has the occasional effective moment, but it’s obviously not the work of someone who was focused on achieving literary excellence. Also, it’s a sad comedown for the man who’d written Trainspotting a half-dozen years earlier. (Thankfully, with his next novel, Glue – which I think is a great book – Welsh got his mojo back.)
The second reason for my low expectations of Filth the movie was that the book’s main character, Detective Sergeant Bruce Robertson of the Lothians and Borders constabulary, is played by James McAvoy. (Robertson is an attempt by Irvine Welsh to distil all the least desirable traits of the human species into one person: he’s a racist, a misogynist, a homophobe, a sadist, a drunkard, a coke-fiend, a junk-food glutton, a Machiavellian manipulator of other people and, no doubt worst of all for Welsh, a supporter of Heart of Midlothian Football Club.)
Now I admire McAvoy a lot. I think he has a wonderful, loveable arrogance not seen in Scottish acting since the days of the young Ewan McGregor (and before McGregor threw it all away on Obi-Wan Kenobi and some mediocre film choices). But I didn’t think there was any way the slim, youthful McAvoy could convincingly play Robertson, who in my mind was a heavy, thuggish-looking bloke in his early middle-age.
However, Filth the movie, which has been directed and scripted by Jon S. Baird, is a good deal better than I’d anticipated. Why? To address the above misgivings in reverse order, McAvoy actually works very well in the lead role. Indeed, I’d say that much of the film’s entertainment value is due to him. Robertson is still the Grade-A bastard that inhabited Welsh’s pages but, somehow, McAvoy manages to invest the character with a certain humour and – very faintly – a likeability that makes it easier to navigate the film in his company than it was to navigate the book. It helps that the one plot strand hinting at Robertson’s decency, which comes when he tries unsuccessfully to save a man’s life on an Edinburgh street and then, to his surprise, wins the admiration of the dead man’s wife and son, is more prominent on screen.
In fact, McAvoy’s youthfulness and good looks – which, admittedly, get increasingly ravaged as the film progresses – work in his favour in one way. Reading the novel, I couldn’t understand how a character as gross as Robertson could have as many women running after him as he does, and have the stamina to keep up with them all. In the film, with McAvoy in the role, you can almost believe that he’s romantically and / or sexually involved with the likes of Shirley Henderson, Kate Dickie, Shauna Macdonald and Pollyanna McIntosh.
As for the other problem, the poverty of the source material, Baird does a better job than anyone could have hoped for in fashioning a coherent storyline out of the novel. He’s jettisoned much that made the original so baggy and what’s left gives the film at least some narrative drive.
Though many critics have marvelled at the darkness of the finished film, it’s considerably lighter than the novel, thanks to what Baird has omitted. Gone is the bit where Robertson steals from a crime scene, an old lady’s burgled house, and then bullies the already-traumatised old lady; the bit where he erases the crime-movie screenplay that his commanding officer, D.C.I. Toal (in the film played by an unrecognisable John Sessions) has spent his every waking moment working on; and thankfully the bits describing Robertson’s epidermal problem on his lower abdomen that causes him, for example, to shed dead skin-flakes over the hair and shoulders of a female suspect while she’s forced to orally pleasure him. Other things have been toned down, including the aforementioned oral-pleasuring sequence and the initial murder that sets the story in progress. In the book, the murder was carried out with a claw-hammer. In the film, it’s a slightly off-screen mass-kicking.
The item of sustained cruelty that survives from book to film is Robertson’s treatment of Clifford Blades, his meek, trusting friend from the local Masonic Lodge, whom he continually abuses, manipulates and humiliates whilst also tormenting his wife, Bunty, with nuisance phone-calls. However, with the help of good performances by Eddie Marsan and Shirley Henderson as Clifford and Bunty, this sub-plot gains a little humanity and even humour on screen and is rather less gruelling. Indeed, Baird’s whole approach to the blackness of Welsh’s vision is to leaven it with humour, so that we end up with a black – pitch black – comedy. The historical and slightly gothic city of Edinburgh provides the film with its backdrop (parts of it were filmed around Victoria Street and the Grassmarket) and, as usual, the Scottish capital fits this sort of black humour well.
Ironically, the one element that doesn’t work in the film is the element that, for me, was the book’s redeeming feature. That is the literary device that Welsh used to represent Robertson’s conscience, which is the supposed voice of a tapeworm growing inside his bowels (and presumably causing his skin disorder) – a stream of consciousness that appeared in a strand of rogue text weaving across the bottom of each page, providing a moral counterpoint to the evilness of its host’s thoughts, words and deeds. In a cinematic attempt to replicate this, Baird swaps the tapeworm for a psychiatrist, played by Jim Broadbent, who pops up at various points to probe Robertson – initially, we assume that Broadbent’s character is real but it becomes clear that he’s a figment of Robertson’s increasingly deranged imagination. Unfortunately, Broadbent’s appearances are only intermittent and don’t get the opportunity to build up to anything. In fact, it probably would’ve been better if Baird had left the tapeworm / psychiatrist stuff out completely. It’s not as if there isn’t enough going on in the film already.
Bleak, cynical, funny and boasting a tour-de-force performance from James McAvoy, Filth is a film that’s worth seeing provided you don’t mind having your snout rubbed in the muck for 97 minutes. It’s also a film adaptation that’s considerably more than what the source novel deserved.