Filth - DVD Review

'tips a respectful Tam o’ Shanter to Trainspotting before swiftly and skillfully striding out from its shadow to plough a fresh and confident cinematic furrow of its own'

For any adaptation of an Irvine Welsh novel, the colossal shadow cast by Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting looms as unavoidable as ever; as Boyle’s film edges closer to its twentieth anniversary, its umbra doesn’t look to be waning anytime soon. Two subsequent attempts to commit Welsh’s stories to celluloid - 1998’s The Acid House, with a screenplay written by Welsh himself, and Irvine Welsh’s Ecstasy released over a decade later in 2011 - have quickly faded into obscurity, seemingly damned for their inability to distinguish themselves credibly from Boyle’s mid-nineties behemoth.

It is therefore rightfully to be admired that in the opening scenes of Filth, the latest Welsh adaptation, screenwriter and director Jon S. Baird handles this creative conundrum with aplomb. With opening monological narration, first from Carole Robertson (Shauna McDonald) and then her husband Bruce (James McAvoy) - the latter employing his natural Scottish accent to great effect - Baird tips a respectful Tam o’ Shanter to Trainspotting before swiftly and skillfully striding out from its shadow to plough a fresh and confident cinematic furrow of its own.

Baird for the most part sets his film in a warped, hyperreal version of Scotland simultaneously garish and stylish, with the director using light in a harshly intrusive fashion as if shooting his film through a perpetual early morning hangover. Hand in hand with the director’s stylistic choices goes an unashamedly un-PC script which the film gets away with through placing its tongue firmly in its cheek. Hearing John Sessions’ Chief Inspector Bob Toal describe two of his police officers as a “latent nazi racist homophobe” and a “bloody jessyboy” in the same breath, it’s difficult not to admire Baird’s hard-boiled approach to Welsh’s pitch black sense of humour.

To play out his uncompromising screenplay, Baird assembles a near faultless cast of British talent. Performance highlights range from the welcomely reliable - Eddie Marsan playing superbly against type in his second quasi-comedic role of 2013 - to the surprisingly excellent, with Jamie Bell impressing throughout as Bruce’s partner-cum-protégé-cum-patsy Ray Lennox.

Impressive as those surrounding him are, this is McAvoy’s film from the very start. A performer who has too often failed to genuinely impress despite finding his way to a number of high profile parts in recent years, Detective Sergeant Bruce Robertson is the role that without question deserves to relaunch McAvoy as a seriously talented and versatile actor. This is a performance organic, energised, and utterly flawless; what makes it all the more impressive is that Bruce is one of the most incontrovertible arseholes ever seen on screen. McAvoy consistently makes this consummately clear, whilst at the same time crafting in Bruce a beguiling anti-hero for us to wilfully follow in all his fourth-wall-breaking, Machiavellian glory, making us squirm in revulsion and glee simultaneously.

The unravelling of Bruce from his introduction as a twistedly entertaining drug-fuelled bent copper, emerging as a sad, troubled and isolated figure dependent on drinking and snorting his way through every waking moment, makes Filth a pretty tough watch particularly during its second half. It’s to the supreme credit of both McAvoy and Baird that this transition is gradual and subtle, expertly handled and portrayed. The juxtaposition of Filth’s cartoonishly hypnagogic and brutally tragic elements becomes ever more heightened as Baird crescendos his film to a simultaneously satisfying and excruciating conclusion.

There are elements here which hold Baird’s film back from perfection: the first half at times feels a little too aimless and anarchic, especially when compared to the fiercely narrative-driven second half; a plot strand concerned with an incident from Bruce’s childhood involving his brother is also disappointingly resolved through an uncharacteristically lazy chunk of exposition, which Baird attempts to cover up by surrounding it with surreal imagery. But the flaws here are few and far between. An uncompromising ride through the mind of cinema’s newest irresistible and iconic sociopath, Filth deserves to take its place amongst the great films of modern British cinema.

By Ben Broadribb. Ben is a regular contributor to Film Intel, having previously written at Some Like It Hot Fuzz. He is normally seen in the wild wearing t-shirts containing obscure film references. He is a geek, often unashamedly so. He's also on and Twitter.

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