Robert Wood is blown away by an unfilmable film that many will consider superior to Transpotting.
Filth is a breakneck tour of an awful man’s breakdown. Bruce Robertson is a corrupt Scottish policeman and freemason high on his own power (and copious amounts of cocaine.) With a promotion on the horizon he begins the process of sabotaging the competition, turning his colleagues against each other while winking cheekily at the camera, and neglecting a murder investigation that’s edging closer and closer to home. The film is darkly hilarious, human and every shot, let alone every scene, is utterly necessary. Jon S. Baird wrote the screenplay as well as directing and the benefits of a singular vision are here in abundance. Filth is lean but generous, like Santa Claus when he first got the job, somehow making a gift of the essential.
Everything in Filth is designed to echo Bruce’s outlook. The film begins with utter confidence, its camera angles and cuts so in-your-face that the audience instantly decides the film must have something to be cocky about. Every scene is leery, played out at breakneck speed, so that it takes a while for us to begin really examining who Bruce is. By that point the movie has slowed down, started to undercut its own confidence with shakier shots and washed out colours, and a feeling of unease that has been around since the start is finally vocalised. The movie breaks down with Bruce until at the moment of his greatest desolation it drops all pretence and manipulation, becomes ‘real’, and we realise we’ve been had as much as any of Bruce’s victims. Baird handles the audience masterfully and right until the end you’re feeling what he wants you to feel, to the extent that a final reversion to the film’s original cheekiness will have you leaving the cinema with a grin on your face even as you realise you’ve been had one final time. James McAvoy is excellent as Bruce, his casting driving quite a few people to see a movie they might otherwise have missed. His is one of the few complex roles in the movie, although the comic performances of the rest of the cast are not unskilled. The difficulty in assessing the actors is that Filth is such a complete work that performances refuse to be examined in a vacuum. Eddie Marsan (Sherlock Holmes, Tyrannosaur) is excellent as Bruce’s pet victim through a combination of his own skill, a brilliant script and perfect casting. Joanne Froggatt and Shauna Macdonald only need a few moments to make us believe they’re real people in a freak show setting, which is lucky because that’s all they get. Likewise Imogen Poots (28 Weeks Later, Jayne Eyre) doesn’t have the screen time to be remarkable as Amanda Drummond but she gives it a good shot, morphing from a crayon drawing to a real person as we realise how little we can trust Bruce’s opinions.
A lot has been written about the supposedly ‘unfilmable’ nature of Irvine Welsh’s Filth, the book on which the movie is based. It’s a label slapped on every other first-person narrative but if you’ve read my review of Irvine Welsh’s novel you’ll realise a direct transfer from prose to film might not be something to wish for. Thankfully Filth differs a great deal from its source material. The pacing issues are fixed so that Bruce undergoes a gradual decline rather than a sudden, late plunge and the novel’s best features are corralled rather than allowed to run wild. There are key moments from the novel absent from the movie, the accidental death of Bruce’s first girlfriend and the monologues of the tape worm, but this helps rather than harms the narrative. Such moments didn’t come to fruition in Welsh’s original story and so instead of making the same false promises Baird transforms them into fascinating asides rather than dead ends. The movie shies away from the original, deeply upsetting ending but the conclusion Baird chooses suits the movie as a whole far better, and revitalises the audience with a confusing sense of fun. The difference is characterised by two lines: ‘I used to be good at this’ in the novel, where Bruce is reflecting on his failures as a policeman, and ‘I used to be a good person’ in the movie. We don’t want movie Bruce to win, not by a long shot, but we also don’t want to see him totally destroyed.
Filth is something special, a fantastic con of a movie that’ll rough you up in a way not nearly enough cinema does. If you wanted you could stack up romantic comedies and watch them every day until the day you die but if you collected every movie that attempts what Filth does masterfully you wouldn’t make it through the second week. Filth lives up to Trainspotting’s legacy and it’s possible that in time it will be judged the superior movie. Get in now for bragging rights later.
When not writing reviews Robert makes terrible life choices and then writes about them for the entertainment of others – http://absentapologies.blogspot.co.uk