Irvine Welsh’s novels are inherently problematic to adapt, so what Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting pulled off was something of a miracle. To compare it with Filth, though, seems almost too easy and would ignore the film’s unique nature. It is a totally different beast after all, a journey through one man’s psychological breakdown, propelled by the main actor’s performance. It’s clear though that Baird borrows visually from Boyle at times. Both films depict gloriously warped journeys under the pretty facade of Edinburgh, yet where Filth falls short of its predecessor is that it doesn’t get under your skin quite to the same extent. Ultimately, this may come down to the main character: nothing about DS Bruce Robertson (James McAvoy) is likeable or relatable (deliberately, of course), and he even becomes less so as the film goes on. Although it’s a visceral, exhilarating watch, its effect won’t linger for half as long as it would after Trainspotting.
As testament to McAvoy’s ability, the film is highly engrossing. It follows the life of the corrupt, bigoted cop Bruce. While assigned to investigate a murder, he tries to scheme, cheat and backstab his way towards a promotion, relentlessly plotting against his colleagues, including Ray (the reliably funny Jamie Bell). Bruce’s personal life - a rancid, bottomless pit of drug-fuelled orgies, whisky-induced hangovers and bondage with colleagues’ wives - spirals into a full-throttle breakdown as the film goes on, laying the extent of his insanity, and depravity bare. No amount of flashy camerawork could hold this narrative together by itself; it succeeds because McAvoy works hard to bring a sense of humanity to the character, ensuring that underneath the laughs, there’s also plenty of room for emotional manoeuvre.
It could ultimately be just a one-man show, but Baird has also succeeded in gathering a terrific supporting cast to populate Welsh’s bonkers narrative. Eddie Marsan is superb as Bruce’s desperately gullible “best friend” Clifford; their weekend in Hamburg together is a standout sequence of sheer hilarity. Playing Clifford’s unfulfilled wife, Shirley Henderson brings such zest to the role. Jim Broadbent plays Dr. Rossi, whose outrageous, hallucinatory appearances are most striking. Imogen Poots is also something of a revelation as the film’s only serious character in her role as detective Amanda, who is constantly on the receiving end of Bruce’s misogyny.
As the film races towards its harrowing finale, the plot becomes even more disorientating. The line between reality and Bruce’s mind (inside which the viewer is firmly strapped) becomes increasingly hazy. If there is a point at which reality does withdraw, it has to be the second act as the film wades the gap between its early comedy and its tragic revelations, with the narrative briefly wandering around as if a little disoriented itself.
The cast is what makes the film really come to life, but Baird’s skill as a filmmaker shouldn’t be overlooked either. Filth is a dizzyingly compelling film, bursting with imaginative visuals and a sickening colour palette, not to mention the eclectic soundtrack that ranges from ironic Christmas songs to David Soul’s bizarre cameo. The film carves out a bold and distinctive identity for itself, rather than relying solely on its strong writing.
Trainspotting was life-affirming and joyous. Filth is neither - it keeps its feet planted firmly in the darkest depths of human existence.