Filth (UK/Sweden/Germany/Belgium/US 2013)

Bladesy (Eddie Marsan) and Bruce (James McAvoy) on the Reeperbahn in Hamburg.

Bladesy (Eddie Marsan) and Bruce (James McAvoy) on the Reeperbahn in Hamburg.

This is a thoroughly entertaining film. It’s scabrous, perverse, surreal and offensive but nonetheless engaging. You need to know that is an adaptation of an Irvine Welsh novel and that therefore there will be sex, drugs, violence and various obscenities. Nothing is to be taken seriously. In strict Aristotelean terms this is possibly a tragedy rather than a comedy – but even then the ending is ambiguous.

I haven’t read the Welsh novel, but a glance at Wikipedia’s page suggests that the adaptation has changed several aspects of the narrative and this may be a problem for Welsh fans. Non-Brits should be aware that ‘Filth’ is a slang term for both the police (‘Polis’ in Scotland) and for pornography as well as more properly for ‘dirt’. The anti-hero of Filth is a Detective Sergeant in the Edinburgh CID, Bruce Robertson, played by James McAvoy. Robertson is put in charge of a murder case which he must solve in order to gain promotion – and win back his wife and child who have left him. But this is a policeman who has a serious mental health problem and who is declining rapidly under a regime of cocaine, alcohol and obsessive sex. He is haunted by a childhood memory that begins to haunt him after he becomes involved in a street incident. Ironically this incident offers Robertson a possibility of some form of redemption but he is already set on a path of destruction which will damage all his colleagues.

Director John S. Baird is not an innovator matching the Danny Boyle of Trainspotting and there is nothing too surprising in the aesthetics of the film, but those of Welsh’s ideas that have made it into the film adaptation added to the array of fine performances by a truly stellar cast carry the film through: Baird keeps the pace going at a fair lick. It’s perhaps invidious to pick out only one or two actors and many of Scotland’s finest are here including Gary Lewis, Kate Dickie, Shirley Henderson, Martin Compston and John Sessions. You can’t really go wrong with talent like that, especially when you throw in the English stars like Eddie Marsan, Jamie Bell, Jim Broadbent and Imogen Poots. But above all there is James McAvoy. I’ve previously questioned his casting in action roles but here he is unassailable, generating viciousness, self-loathing and gleeful pleasure in tricking his colleagues.

This production is a good case study for an investigation of ‘British independent’ production in 2013. Despite the the Irvine Welsh connection (or perhaps because of it – two other adaptations after Trainspotting failed) and the excellent cast, money was hard to come by and the producers appear to have been in that classic position of paying the actors out of their own pockets at one point. Once again Europe comes to the rescue with public funding from Film i väst in Sweden and various funds in Germany and Belgium. This explains the insertion of a trip to Hamburg in the narrative. It looks like an injection of cash from Trudie Styler’s company topped off a £3 million budget. That’s about twice the size of a ‘domestic’ UK movie budget these days but it does appear that the money has been well spent on cast and effects plus music. Clint Mansell is in charge of music and though I have no real knowledge of the tracks used in the film, I think that they work pretty well. I’m sure that eventually there will be a fan community analysis of the music.

After three weekends on release (the first only in Scotland) Lionsgate are probably fairly pleased with the box office returns, especially given the ’18’ certificate in the UK and distribution to certain overseas territories has been finalised. Censorship will keep it out of India and North America might be a problem but in Northern Europe I think it will play well. So far the UK total is just over $4 million with only a 25% drop in Week 3.

It’s been a good couple of weeks for Scottish films with Sunshine on Leith and the specialised offering For Those in Peril. Here’s the shortest of many official trailers for Filth:

One comment

  1. des1967

    SPOILER WARNING: if you haven’t seen the film, the following comment includes a reference to the film’s ending which reveals crucial plot details.

    Like Roy, I enjoyed this film a lot. Much of the enjoyment was based on (guilty) pleasure at the sheer exuberance of Bruce Robertson’s nastiness – sexism, racism, homophobia, deceit etc. I agree with Roy about the performances which were excellent. As well as James McAvoy, who showed he has the acting chops for a wider range of roles he has hitherto been given credit for (and who didn’t overdo the breaking-the-fourth wall collusion with the audience), John Sessions I thought played the bigoted police chief with tremendous relish; and the incongruity of his secret identity as aspiring script writer is well exploited for its comic possibilities. (Is it silly to be disappointed that someone whose talent you admire is a UKIP supporter? He made this clear in a recent interview in The Independent. I recall him playing Gramsci in a TV play some years ago!). Shirley Henderson rarely disappoints, especially in comic roles, and Eddie Marsan demonstrated that he can play a more mild-mannered character than I associate him with (eg Sally Hawkes misanthropic driving instructor in Happy-Go-Lucky). I’m not sure that the highly stylised scenes in which Robertson is treated by his Australian psychiatrist are totally successful but Jim Broadbent is always a presence in any role. There is, of course, a fine line between the comic exaggeration required in a film like this and caricature, a line that Jon S Baird (the director) and his actors generally kept to this side of.

    I also enjoyed the way the film had a dig at the pernicious influence of the Freemasons in the Scottish Police Service; if it had been a truly Scottish film, I’m sure they would have given the issue a body-swerve. Another guilty pleasure was seeing Irvine Welsh’s ‘roasting’ of Hearts football club survive into the film, a pleasure shared by McAvoy – according to his interview about the film on the Celtic FC website. (For those unfamiliar with Scottish football landscape, Hearts are seen as a kind of mini-Rangers with regard to issues such as, shall we say, tolerance and inclusiveness).

    The only downside for me was the final Act of the film when Robertson cracks up when his evil machinations start to come back to haunt him (although this was perhaps circumscribed by Welsh’s original novel). I wasn’t sure how the film wanted me to respond. Were we meant to empathise with Robertson as we learn more about his situation? Was there meant to be a degree of pathos at his unravelling, especially as he is given a backstory which might explain how he has turned out. The fact that he tries to commit suicide with a Hearts scarf would seem to swing back towards black comedy – but it’s a tonal mix I found a bit awkward. He is shown to act without self-interest at least once – when he tries unsuccessfully to save some one from a heart attack. He is almost given a chance of redemption through the gentle widow of the man he tried to save (played by Joanne Froggatt from Downton Abbey – now that is a guilty pleasure!) Some of these aspects got in the way of my enjoyment – though not enough to spoil the pleasure I got from most of the film.


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