It has been 17 years since Danny Boyle’s inspired adaption of Irvine Welsh’s novel Trainspotting took British cinema by storm, becoming a cult hit which inspired a new age of British film making under the banner of “Cool Britannia”. Subsequent adaptations of Welsh’s work have struggled by comparison, with Ecstasy and The Acid House representing commercial and critical failures, whilst the film adaptation of Porno, the long anticipated sequel to Trainspotting, is yet to materialise.
It is from this mixed heritage that Filth emerges. An adaption of Welsh’s 1998 novel of the same name, Filth, much like Trainspotting before it, is equally as emotionally exhausting an experience as it is utterly compulsive viewing. The film follows the story of Bruce Robertson (James McAvoy), an Edinburgh-based detective whose entire sense of reality is slowly unwinding beneath the weight of a deeply personal crisis. Bruce’s slow descent into psychological purgatory is the principal focus of the film, exploring as it does the character’s intensely toxic mixture of family trauma, substance abuse, sexual deviancy and his prevailing sense of immorality. Jon S. Baird’s screenplay deftly translates Welsh’s darkly witty style of dialogue from page to screen, peppering the opening section of the film with a series of bitingly sharp one-liners which range from the absurdly hilarious to the depraved and obscene within the space of a few seconds. This is perhaps the entire point of Filth: to walk the tightrope between reality and the lurid, depraved world which Bruce inhabits, and to cross over into the absurd rather than accept the truth of mundane failure.
More so than Boyle’s film, Filth spends much of its running time in the interior world which Bruce has constructed for himself, where the otherwise solid style of Baird’s direction shows a little sleight of hand in manipulating the presentation and perception of reality, an idea most clearly pursued through the character of Carole. In this way Filth is far more focussed on the main protagonist than was the case in Trainspotting, which was much more of an ensemble affair. It is fortunate then that, in McAvoy, Baird has cast a leading man capable of portraying Bruce’s paradoxical nature with electrifying intensity, and with emotional depth beyond that of the explicitly damaged. On watching his performance, there is a sense that this is finally a McAvoy unburdened by his looks, or his potential as a heroic lead figure. If his recent roles in Welcome to the Punch and Danny Boyle’s Trance were an attempt to shed his image as a heartthrob earned from performances in the likes of Atonement, then Filth represents the culmination of such efforts in glorious, grimy detail. Physically, McAvoy is essentially transformed into the older, if not wiser form of Bruce, embracing the seedy, neglected exterior as much as he does the conflicted interiority of his character.
Beyond McAvoy, Filth boasts an impressive supporting cast numbering the likes of Jamie Bell, Jim Broadbent, Imogen Poots and Eddie Marsan, all of whom serve the film well even though none has either the screen time nor the character development to outshine the excellent McAvoy. It is a testament to both the writing and to McAvoy’s acting that Bruce, a character so utterly repulsive on the surface, is afforded any kind of sympathy by the viewer. Indeed, it is in the film’s final glimmer of redemption, amid the brutal escalation and deterioration of the third act, that the film finds just enough humanity to justify all of its layers of filth, both psychological and overt.
Unfair though it may be, Filth will perhaps always be identified and critiqued in connection to Trainspotting, given that both films are adaptions of Welsh’s novels. Yet Filth is distinct enough in style and substance(s) to stand alongside Boyle’s iconic film in its own right.