There are plenty of great books which have been thought un-filmable and subsequently gone on to be cinematic triumphs. American Psycho, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Naked Lunch and Lolita (Kubrick’s version) are just a few personal favourites, and the same thing was also once said about Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting before Danny Boyle came along. What all of the above prove is that making a great film is not so much about the source material as the vision of the director. If that fails, no matter how good the original novel, you have turkey on your hands.
To the above list can be added the recent adaptation of Welsh’s 1998 novel Filth. The film is a triumph for everyone involved, but most of the credit must go to the director, Jon S. Baird. Well, him and James McAvoy. I know I’m one for hyperbole, but McAvoy’s performance as Bruce Robertson is astonishing. He sweats, leers, gurns and greets through a film where he is in almost every scene. Any one who has read the book will know that Robertson is one of the most perverse character in the world of Welsh, and that’s saying something, so to make you want to watch him on screen would take a special performance.
Casting McAvoy turns out to be a decision of genius, as he has innate likability. This means he has to use all his skills to make us believe he is Bruce, but the fact that he does so so convincingly from the beginning is huge credit to him. This is one of the great Scottish acting performances, and as far as memorable on-screen psychos go, you can add his Bruce to Christian Bale’s ‘Patrick Bateman’, De Niro’s ‘Travis Bickle’, Malcolm McDowell’s ‘Alex De Large’, and, perhaps most aptly, Harvey Keitel’s Bad Lieutenant. As my brother so succinctly put it, “You’ll never think of Mr Tumnus in the same way ever again”.
The rest of the cast rise to the task of lending their support, and special mention must be made of Eddie Marsan, Jamie Bell, Kate Dickie, Gary Lewis, John Sessions, Shirley Henderson and Jim Broadbent who are all having a whale of a time. If they weren’t so good the film would overbalance, and it is to everyones’ credit that this doesn’t happen. Throw in a taxi driving David Soul, but not too much, and you have a film to remember, or at least one which will not be forgotten.
This is where the director Baird earns applause as he manages to never let anything play out to excess, which may seem an odd statement to anyone who has seen the film. What I mean is, just when you think he has taken it too far, he pulls back and shows a glimpse of humanity in Bruce, or in another character, which makes sure this cannot simply be seen as an expolitation movie. This is not the one-note film some have claimed. The ‘twist’ at the end may seem implausible to some, but for those who know the book it was a moment where you knew it had to be coming, but wondered how they were going to pull it off, and I think they do it in some style. That’s what the film has, a confidence and style which is rare in Scottish cinema.
Filth is one of the best films of the year; black as night and impossible to ignore, and that is what it has in common with Welsh’s source novel (one of his top three, in case you’re interested). Baird captures the tone of Welsh’s best writing, in that it can be comic, but it also deals with breakdowns, mental and institutional, and shows man (and with Welsh it is almost always man) at his lowest. Filth has been described as a black comedy, but it is so much more than that. It about a man who is mentally ill, and the camera never shies away from this. That is why McAvoy is such a triumph. Despite everything we witness he manages to convey that there is, hidden deep down, something decent still surviving. No body is born this bad, and there are reasons that Bruce is as he is.
If you look at the list above, from Patrick Bateman to the Bad Lieutenant, and you could add in Norman Bates and Baby Jane Hudson, there are always reasons behind who they have become. They wouldn’t be so memorable otherwise. You may not accept those reasons as excuses, and in most cases you shouldn’t, but you can’t deny they are there. You could argue that a film which entertains as Filth does is having its cake and eating it, but I think that’s missing the point. If you watch the film and think that Bruce’s life is attractive, at any juncture, then the problem is not with the film.
But, if all you want is a one sentence reason to see Filth, the Daily Mail give it a one star review and anything that offends their sensibilities that much has to be worth the price of admission. Here’s the trailer, followed by an interview with Jon S. Baird himself: