In a sarcastic reversal of Renton’s “it’s shite being Scottish” monologue in Danny Boyle‘s Trainspotting (1996), Filth (2013, 97 mins) begins with a Scottish hagiography from Detective Sergeant Bruce Robertson (James McAvoy). The passion may be there in the voiceover but the images belie the conviction. And that’s how things go through the film, with all appearances being deceiving and nothing quite as it would seem.
As cops go, Bruce Robertson is as corrupt as they come. A thread of hedonism runs through his life as he drinks excessively, takes hard drugs, and, when not indulging his hyperactive sex drive with someone, indulging it alone. If that’s not bad enough for a lawman he’s also partial to a spot of blackmail and intimidation. He knows there’s a promotion to Detective Inspector in the offing and aims to get it, whatever the costs, even if that means playing his colleagues (Imogen Poots, Jamie Bell, Emun Elliott, and Gary Lewis) off against each other in what he refers to as “the Games”. What may help him get that promotion is solving the murder we see in the opening scene.
Like Trainspotting, Filth is also adapted from a novel by Irvine Welsh, however it spends its time away from Edinburgh’s junky class and embeds itself within the establishment. The police, Freemasons, courts, and businessmen take the limelight but there’s nothing rose-tinted about this tier of society. Certainly, with DS Robertson as our guide, there’s no respect afforded it either. This, after all, is a guy pestering the wife of Bladesey (Eddie Marsan), his only friend, with obscene phone calls (in the guise of Frank Sidebottom!) while simultaneously leading the case to uncover the culprit. Situations like this drive the narrative, with Robertson having his nefarious schemes going to plan while at the same time letting them spiral out of control.
Despite the gravity of scenes peppering Filth — underage sex, prostitution, drug usage, amongst many others — it’s all served up with a thick slice of dark humour. It’s hard not to laugh at the casual disregard for everything voiced in McAvoy’s narration. In fact, as roles go, it can clearly be seen that McAvoy relishes the possibilities of DS Robertson’s sheer breadth of character. One minute he’s sneaking out a casual fart, the next he’s all Bad Lieutenant. If he’s not being nice to the boss (John Sessions), he’s furiously masturbating in a cubicle. A role that offers variety to an actor is a gift and McAvoy practically oozes enjoyment here. Making a psychotic, sex-addicted, drug-using, hallucinating alcoholic a likeable character is no mean feat but somehow McAvoy achieves it.
What is perhaps less successful is the occasional trip into DS Robertson’s psyche, personified by Jim Broadbent‘s bizarre psychiatrist with elongated forehead and exaggerated Australian accent. While Broadbent plays it comical, and isn’t to be faulted, these sections don’t quite have the payoff one would hope. What they are is an an attempt to portray an element of the original novel (substituting a tapeworm with a cartoonish psychiatrist) that deserves a high score for effort but something more middling for the result. Someone, somewhere, must have deemed it relevant rather than finding a more innovative way to portray this. A tapeworm does appear in the film, spinning around in the ever-muddled Robertson’s head but, in the film’s context, it’s apropos of nothing.
While the aforementioned cast — joined by the likes of Shirley Henderson, Kate Dickie, and, in one weird scene, David Soul — perform well, the movie is dominated by McAvoy shouting, laughing, snorting, and sneering his way from scene to scene. With a murder to solve and a promotion to gain, he ploughs on as his world disintegrates around him. All his vices have becomes the filth that covers the truth he would rather not face. The truth about who, under all the bluff and bluster, DS Bruce Robertson really is. And even this, as sad as it is, doesn’t escape the bleak humour that undercuts everything.