Adaptations of Irvine Welsh novels, like Irvine Welsh novels, have gone downhill since Trainspotting.
The Acid House (1998) had a flawed, lunatic charm but Ecstasy (2011) was little more than an anemic homage to Danny Boyle’s more famous Edinburgh romp. Filth – based on a novel of spectacular, scatological vulgarity – is better than either, but is so grounded in nineteen-ninety-something that it sometimes feels like a period piece.
McAvoy doesn’t seem like an obvious choice to play Bruce Robertson, the scheming Neanderthal cop at the heart of the squalid tale, but then Robert Carlyle didn’t seem like an obvious choice to play Trainspotting’s Begbie, until the moment you saw him toss a pint glass over his head… McAvoy doesn’t quite capture the terrifying menace of his compatriot, but he shows impressive range as he gurns and snorts his way towards oblivion. What his bent copper lacks in physical presence he makes up for in twisted, Machiavellian malice; you never quite like Robertson, but you have to admire his chutzpah.
One of the chief conceits of the novel – the growing sentience of Robertson’s intestinal tapeworm, which comes to represent his own inward-facing hatred – is, for understandable reasons, dropped. Nobody wants to see that. Instead we get a series of ill-advised asides set inside Robertson’s head, which take inspiration, for reasons unexplained, from the room at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Filth’s opening scenes are shamelessly derivative – at one point Robertson even apes Ewan McGregor’s famous “It’s s**** being Scottish” speech, replacing it with “It’s great being Scottish”, listing things such as deep fried Mars Bars and obesity. But it’s a festering wound of a movie that gets better the more the infection sets in. From the moment a flabby, porcine face leers back at Robertson from the mirror, it’s a nauseating drive straight to a hallucinatory, drink- and drug-induced hell.
As things near their inevitably bleak conclusion, director Jon S Baird seems at pains to try to salvage a shred of dignity from what is decidedly undignified source material, and he shies away from the ultimate ignominy Welsh saves for his protagonist on the final page.
The shocks aren’t quite as shocking as they would have been 15 years ago, but between the rapid-fire references to genital size, the graphic scenes of despairing drug use and even more despairing sex, is some seriously stylish filmmaking.
First published in City A.M.