The last film I saw that had any Irvine Welsh involvement was The Magnificent 11, a comedy so peculiarly inept that I started to think it was deliberate, a tax write-off perhaps, or a spoof of depressing British comedies of the early 1970s, in which girls with blue eye-liner would shed an ill-fitting bra to reveal dog-eared breasts.
Jon S Baird’s adaptation of Welsh’s 1998 novel is far more what we expect from the writer of Trainspotting. Welsh has been out of fashion just long enough to be due a comeback, but is this what our New Puritan age is clamouring for – the sweary, druggy, skanky story of a very naughty Edinburgh copper?
The answer to that question will be weighed by the tonnage of bums on seats. Meanwhile, there’s James McAvoy’s performance to enjoy. It’s a big Oliver Reed man-beast of a turn with McAvoy as the beefy, hairy, bloky Bruce Robertson, a foul-mouthed, bipolar, sweaty Jock copper with stained teeth who is shagging, snorting and bull-charging his way towards a personal and career meltdown.
Outside Robertson’s head everything is Miss Jean Brodie by comparison. His fellow officers are capable, sensible, down to earth. There’s John Sessions, all bumptious authority as Robertson’s boss, while Jamie Bell and Imogen Poots are the 21st century cops who know how to bend to political correctness and how to bend it their way, unlike Robertson.
At the dusty Masonic meeting all of them routinely attend Robertson hooks in with a tweedy owlish character called Bladesey (Eddie Marsan), an unlikely escort towards the brink. The women in Robertson’s life are Chrissie (Kate Dickie, again heroically getting her kit off for Scotland in some athletic sex scenes), and Bunty (Shirley Henderson), whom Robertson is harassing with sex-pest phone calls, just for the hell of it.
With nods to Dennis Potter, when it’s not following Robertson as he ricochets through police duties, Filth plays interior fantasy as exterior reality. Most obviously in Robertson’s scene with a taxi driver (played by David Soul) as the two lip-sync along to Soul’s 1977 hit single Silver Lady while backing singers pop up from the back seat to contribute ooh-ahhs. But there are other hallucinatory episodes, in which Robertson is visited by a crackpot Australian shrink (Jim Broadbent) who goads his patient on to even worse excess. All very Singing Detective and very funny.
But never mind the interludes, what drove this big bad man to this pretty pass? You know, I don’t care. And I don’t think Welsh really does either. His main focus is to wind up deluded grotesques and set them off running around causing damage, most particularly to themselves. He’s never been that great at what you might call the comedown, the getout. Luckily, for the most part, what we get here is the good stuff – a violent frothing custodian of the law taunted by visions of people in animal heads as he falls apart in front of our eyes.
It is hugely enjoyable. But Filth also insists on being grown up and explaining things. And the more it goes into Robertson’s psychological motivation – his brother’s early death, his wife’s absence from the marital home – the less I enjoyed it. It really is a film of two parts. Part one is kept afloat by Welsh’s funny, fast and sweary energy and McAvoy’s cortisol-burning performance as a Rabelaisian monster doing what the hell he wants and succeeding because he’s smarter and more driven than the others.
Part two is the descent. And after the fireworks of part one, the drool and sentimentality of part two is something of a downer. And without a compensating lift in pace elsewhere, it’s not surprising that, at the cinema I saw this at, people started to shift in their seats.
A relation of Woody Harrelson’s cop-out-of-time in Rampart, Robertson is a brute, but he’s doing what a lot of us would like to do. He’s behaving badly and he has the wit and the balls to get away with it. As Filth hits the home straight it suddenly asks us – in a “now look, you’ve had your fun” volte-face – to engage emotionally with people we were being encouraged to laugh at only a few minutes before: bored Henderson, timid Marsan, oversexed Dickie, ridiculous Sessions. The first half of Filth is pretty near perfect and, you know, we get it, we know Robertson is not a nice man, the film’s title is more than just an allusion to a nickname for policemen generally. Director Jon Baird keeps faith with the original novel, but he loses sight a little of what has made his film so entertaining. Irvine Welsh isn’t infallible – see The Magnificent 11 for confirmation. Couldn’t the director have just sent the raging Robertson off over a cliff, Thelma and Louise style?
© Steve Morrissey 2013