We have had a few fairly unremarkable adaptations of Scottish novelist Irvine Welsh's books, supporting the notion that with the one exception of Danny Boyle's phenomenal 'Trainspotting', his material remains pretty much impossible to put on the screen. Indeed, 'Trainspotting' itself was not a direct adaption as such, but rather an extrapolation of bits and pieces of it to make a cohesive narrative. In the Welsh lore, 'Filth' is put up there as one of the most difficult, and so it is with great surprise that Jon Baird's take on the book is not only a good piece of work, but also perhaps one of the most accomplished films of 2013!
Our protagonist, as is so often the case with Welsh, is not a person we would choose to meet. Detective Sargent Bruce Robertson is mean-spirited, racist, sexist, aggressive, vindictive, with a psychiatric disorder and a bitter past that won't let him rest, which he seems most happy to appease with a regular cocktail of drink, cocaine and sexual debauchery behind his colleagues' and family's back. Manipulative and out for himself, Bruce has a plan to appear to be solving the case of a murdered local resident, whilst playing all his colleagues off one another with a view to clearing an easy path for his own promotion to Chief Detective.
There are plenty of treats strewn through 'Filth', little cameos, smart, snappy dialogue, great jokes and wonderful performances from the likes of the ever versatile Jim Broadbent and Eddie Marsan. A subtle, schizophrenic soundtrack underscores so well the dark, cesspit nature of the journey the character is on, it raises the question, again, as to whether Clint Mansell will ever do wrong? The whole thing is shot with a seemingly intentional recklessness; an abandonment of sharp editing and an embrace of a sloppy, rough-around-the edges, almost unfocused approach make a film that feels as disgusting as the vomit spewing from character's mouths, both figuratively and, at times, literally!
The star here, however, is James MacEvoy. There has been much said about his performance being an Oscar courting one; whilst there is no guarantee of that, I am confident in saying this is a career-best from him, and this cannot be overstated. Welsh has said he thinks MacEvoy is "better than De Niro in Taxi Driver", and whilst I do not know if I agree with that, we can certainly understand the comparison. MacEvoy is not a man one might immediately cast in this role, and so it makes it all the more impressive when we watch a performance that simultaneously keeps us at a distance and pulls us close; the actor manages to be completely vile, and yet convince us with an equal conviction that he is a man with a buried and forgotten heart that used to pump warmth; I have not seen this level of complexity so well delivered since Peter Mullan in 'Tyrannosaur'. Scabrous, nasty, cold and angry, yet obviously vulnerable and lost, this is a perfectly balanced, well-rounded performance, and MacEvoy is perhaps most impressive when he is being everything at once! In one such scene, he says, "I used to be good at this job," which could well sum up Robertson's rather sad arc. Whatever your final take on him, we get a complete human being, and not one we ever feel the desire to condemn, despite all his awfulness.
In the face of common opinion that it simply wouldn't work, and after years of development, 'Filth' turns out to be a near masterpiece, whose recognition as such is only made less likely by the inevitable comparison with 'Trainspotting'. It is a ballsy adaption of a hugely admired novel, as unpredictable as its central character and charged with the vitriolic energy of the author's writing. A well balanced juggling act of tones; in lesser hands this would have been a mess! It is not always a pleasant watch, but like the central character, it finds its way to a strange, engaging and even rather emotional resolution. Whilst there is likely to be a good forty percent of casual viewers who are left completely cold, the remaining will see a successful, proudly Scottish film that is by turns dark, shocking, comical and moving, which also goes out on an incredibly catchy and surprisingly fitting 70's hit!
'Filth' is the film we would hail as the Irvive Welsh-penned grenade of British cinema, if only Danny Boyle had not got there first.
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