Any screen adaptation of a book, especially one with its own pre-established following, is faced with an inescapable conundrum that's always at the very heart of the process: how to reconcile two distinct mediums that work so differently in practice, without losing the very qualities that drew one to the original source in the first place? Jon S. Baird’s film of Irvine Welsh’s third published novel, 1998’s “Filth”, is confronted with that challenge in spades of course, but it also faces the additional pressure of having to live up to the cult reputation enjoyed by what is still Welsh’s most famous work … as well as its hugely influential screen incarnation -- namely, Danny Boyle’s film of “Trainspotting”. This is the movie that not only made Welsh’s world of druggy Scottish lowlifes one that is now instantly identifiable with the faces of its particular cast of then little-known stars while providing a platform for a whole new generation of young British acting talent, but which has also come to be seen over the course of what is now almost twenty years since its first release, as something of a classic of British cinema that defines the moment the career of its talented director really took flight, and has set the template for how one should go about handling on screen the dark caustic world Welsh’s literature creates on the page. “Filth” poses a number of distinct challenges for any one setting out to translate it for the movies because of its eccentric use of some rather bizarre literary devices, which one might think would automatically consign it to the list of literary works firmly ensconced in the ‘unfilmable’ category. The novel had, in fact, already been optioned a number of times to no avail before this version finally got the green light from the author himself, who has publically backed the adaptation, citing Baird’s re-interpretation of the work and the central performance given in it by James McAvoy -- who plays monstrous anti-hero Detective Sergeant Bruce Robertson -- as his main reasons for getting on board, and for his willingness to help out with the subsequent marketing of the film.
McAvoy’s performance does indeed lie at the heart of Baird’s approach to the material, in a movie which combines its frantically paced succession of comic episodes with particular emphasis on character, and is absolutely loaded with top notch British character actors hand-picked for their ability to bring this demented world to life: from John Sessions and Eddie Marsan to Shirley Henderson, Kate Dickie, Jamie Bell and Jim Broadbent – all are pictured revolving like satellites around McAvoy’s dark star of insanity, in what must be one of the most versatile representations of a human descent into depravity since Dennis Hopper first snorted into his helium mask for David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet”. The difference here, though, is that we are invited to completely immerse ourselves from the opening minutes of the movie in Bruce Robertson’s crazily fragmented world. For the entirety of its first half we see things pretty much exclusively through his deluded eyes, and to a large extent are presented with only Bruce’s own subjective, aggrandising idea of himself as a self-confessedly corrupt, bigoted Edinburgh cop, who is, nonetheless, much more intelligent and a zillion times sharper than any of his colleagues, all of whom are portrayed in a way that matches Robertson’s own inflated opinion of himself inversely to their capacity for being manipulated and stitched up by him in a plethora of ways, without ever noticing it.
Bruce Robertson is a pretty reprehensible character – a misogynistic, chauvinistic, abusive, homophobic, sectarian slob, who, indeed, does treat people, and particularly women, like the proverbial filth; yet he is in some ways the best guide we could ask for when it comes to conducting us on a tour of the institutional hypocrisies lurking behind the closed ranks highlighted by Irvine Welsh’s world of drug-snorting bent coppers, who all belong to the same Free Masons lodge and are more concerned with trampling over each other to claw their way up the greasy pole of promotion than they are with catching the gang of hooligans that, as the film opens, is actively committing racially motivated attacks on the streets of Edinburgh in the run up to Christmas. The film starts off as a fairly broad comedy but grows darker around the edges, flirting at first with presenting a more sanitised vision of Robertson as a sort of Gene Hunt-style anti-political correctness, no-nonsense exposer of his colleagues’ hypocrisy and cant – a perception which is to some extent actively encouraged by Clint Mansell’s signature cue for the character, which sounds like a Brit Pop-inspired arrangement of the theme from “The Sweeny”.
We’re given a bitterly funny Scottish tourism advert at the start, set outside Edinburgh Castle and narrated by Robertson with a faux rhetorical Scottish pride, which juxtaposes his fine words with knowingly clichéd images of negativity often associated with Scotland: namely wailing bagpipes players and a family of slouching, deep-fried-Mars Bar-munching chavs, complete with heavily pregnant underage daughter smoking a ciggie and a greasy-haired father swigging from a bottle of whisky in the street. Thus we are simultaneously being asked as an audience -- all the way through the first forty-minutes or so of the film -- to, on the one hand be repelled by Robertson’s vices and abhorrent attitudes, but also at the same time to sort of admire his ingenuity and celebrate his bad behaviour (which is, after all, providing most of the laughs) as he sets about sabotaging his no-less-unpleasant colleagues’ prospects for promotion in the race for the Detective Inspector job that’s up for grabs in his chaotic department.
The film presents Robertson’s right-wing perspective on the world through the prism of comedic parody, which allows his colleagues to be portrayed as a selection of gross stereotypes in the distorting lens of Bruce’s irrational prejudices: his tough guy working-class colleague Dougie Gillman (Brian McCardie) is imagined as an intolerant goose-stepping Nazi, parading before a line-up of all the minorities he despises the most, i.e. a blind man with a stick, a disabled man in a wheelchair, a dwarf, a black man and a mincing homosexual -- his anger merely a displacement of his frustration over his wife Chrissie’s infidelity (a role played by Kate Dickie, who still seems to be the go-to actress if it’s unromantic displays of grimy sex among the lower classes you’re after, despite a burgeoning Hollywood career). Gillman is, needless to say, blissfully unaware that it is Bruce who is actually shagging his missus, in afternoon romps carried out at his house and in his own bed. Meanwhile, Bruce’s partner (the Carter to his Regan), Ray Lennox (Jamie Bell), takes mountains of cocaine and shares Bruce’s taste for Ukrainian prostitutes, while his aspiring screenwriting boss Bob Toal (John Sessions) is a closet homosexual who hides his sexual preferences behind a veil of suspiciously hyperbolic anti-gay rhetoric. The metrosexual Peter inglis (Emun Elliot), meanwhile, may or may not be ‘a bufty’ (a derogatory Scottish slang word for homosexual) and is the subject of a campaign of insinuations conducted via the slanderous graffiti (written by you-know-who) which keeps appearing daily in the men’s toilets.
The utter obsession with who is or who isn’t secretly gay and the constant comparison of the relative size of each-others’ manhoods (which culminates in an office photo-copying incident contrived by Bruce in order to undermine Lennox by exposing the fact that he’s only packing ‘a baby’s cock’) totally dominates the banter in the hyper masculine environment we see proliferating among Bruce and his colleagues; and of course, these attitudes eventually reach such levels of comically absurd denial that they ultimately only serve to expose the desperate insecurities of all the men involved. Naturally, the one female permitted among their ranks, the focused and determinedly ambitious Amanda Drummond (Imogen Poots), is the subject of relentless snide rumours (again, spread by Bruce in order to undermine her chances of promotion) claiming that she’s either a lesbian or else has obtained her current rank by offering blow jobs to her superiors – although Bruce is confident that she’ll get herself impregnated long before there’s any chance of her possessing a threat to his own promotion prospects.
This kind of ribald, ‘politically incorrect’ humour often skirts a fine line between endorsing its subject’s sensibilities with laddish ‘bad taste’ humour, and seeking to expose its sheer ludicrousness. Baird’s screenplay presents a series of absurd caricatures and a lot of over-the-top surrealistic humour, but also allows Robertson’s behaviour to tip just far enough beyond the bounds of acceptability (such as in a scene where he is shown blackmailing a fifteen-year-old girl into sexually gratifying him) so as to avoid the heavier charge of playing up to the very attitudes supposedly being satirised … but only just. The trick, which the film executes perfectly, is to set up this extreme perspective on Bruce’s life and the culture he is complicit in promoting, in a humorous way during the first half of the film, and then to set about dismantling it piece by piece; revealing to us what really lies behind the manipulative self-image, as his world gradually cracks and falls apart under a welter of drugs and booze and mental destabilisation.
A brief scene early on with Jim Broadbent’s Dr Rossi establishes that Robinson is supposed to be on some sort of medication which he is clearly not taking, and some weird interludes that are shot like a cross between a 1970s perfume and lingerie commercial and the video to the Human League’s 1981 single “Don’t You Want Me”, in which Bruce’s wife Carole (Shauna Macdonald) is shown in idealised surroundings apparently working as a high-class call-girl, while she narrates the secret of the success of her marriage, are clearly part of a fantasy world constructed in the protagonist’s head; but just how mentally unbalanced and out of control Bruce’s psyche actually is we have to wait some way into the film before we can fully glean. The decisive event that turns proceedings away from the comic and more towards the disturbing and the dramatic, comes in the middle of the film, when an initially light-hearted holiday in the red light district of Hamburg (replacing the novel’s Amsterdam for production reasons), which Bruce visits with his bespectacled, tank top-wearing and eternally put-upon best friend Clifford Blades (Eddie Marsan), results in a hallucinogenic, pill-fuelled booze bender spinning out of control to reveal the true depths of Robinson’s despair and derangement as they emerge through the gaps in his individualistic façade of macho bravado.
The hallucinations take many forms including that of the ghostly presence of a small boy which only Bruce can see, and they culminate in visions of a giant tape worm and terrifying encounters with his colleagues, who are apt to suddenly turn into grotesque oversized animal-headed monsters or devils before his eyes; and there are some bizarre cameo appearances from the likes of cult comedy character Frank Sidebottom (whose TV show is always playing in the background when Bruce has phone sex with Clifford’s frustrated ‘lioness’ of a wife Bunty [Shirley Henderson]) and “Starsky & Hutch” actor and ‘70s heartthrob pop singer David Soul, whose guest performance of his hit ‘Silver Lady’ is one of the film’s most joyously bonkers highlights. Broadbent’s Dr Rossi also appears in crazy fantasy sequences in which Robertson is psychoanalysed on the couch in a mock-up of the set from the end sequence of Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” (Baird is apparently a big Kubrick fan), providing the film’s mechanism for dealing with the novel’s more notoriously outré literary devices.
McAvoy’s performance really kicks into overdrive here, especially with the introduction of Joanne Froggatt’s sympathetic character Mary, whose appearance in Robertson’s life reminds him of the person he once might have become had his life followed a different course, and who offers through her presence the intangible hope of some kind of redemption for him, even if it is one that is never really likely to become a reality. There are scenes here when McAvoy is required to flit from one extreme and violently contradictory emotion to another in a matter of seconds and, without having to try and excuse or validate his behaviour, the film does thereby cleverly manage to create a degree of empathy in the mind of the viewer towards its increasingly self-destructive anti-hero, painting a portrait of someone who is trapped in a psychological stasis by the sudden knowledge of the limitless depths of their own hopelessness.
Clint Mansell’s score manages to combine cheesy Xmas standards (even Shakin’ Stevens’ ‘Merry Christmas Everyone’ makes an ironically welcome appearance at one point) with an intelligently understated series of original cues that only become more noticeable as psychosis takes over in the latter half of the movie. Matthew Jensen’s cinematography deserves a shout out too, graded in the faded hues of the kind of cobalt blue which evokes nostalgia for old Polaroid Instamaticphotographs. Director Jon S. Baird also has a knack for the visually arresting composition and supplies the movie with dynamic flow and a kinetic energy that never flags throughout its ninety-minutes.
“Filth” comes to Blu-ray from Lionsgate Home Entertainment looking as fine as one would expect in HD and with a good selection of extras headed by a commentary track by the writer Irvine Welsh and screen adapter and director Jon S. Baird. The two men are good friends and have remained so during the three years the project has been in the pipeline, so this is a light-hearted affair which makes for an entertaining listen thanks to the good natured joshing it features between light reminiscences about the making of the movie. Also included are three interviews: with James McAvoy, who claims this was one of the best scripts he ever read and speaks of the character as being ‘like Richard III or Iago but on a cocktail of uppers, downers and a bottle of whisky a-day.’ Director Jon S. Baird talks about the practicalities of how he went about adapting the book and Irvine Welsh (in the longest of the three interviews) discusses his original intentions with the novel and how he initially thought James McAvoy was too young and good-looking for the part of Bruce Robertson but was persuaded otherwise by the radical transformation the actor managed to effect during an informal audition for the role.
There are some extended scenes, numerous deleted scenes (which includes the infamous farmyard bestiality sequence) and a selection of outtakes from the set to round off this interesting adaptation of one of Welsh’s best novels, which seems like it has every chance of eventually developing the kind of reputation “Trainspotting” was able to garner after a positive critical reception, even of it hasn’t made the same box office splash as its more popular forbear.
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