As the title implies, Filth is a malevolent film about a nasty piece of work, Detective Sergeant (wannabe Inspector) Bruce Robertson, a corrupt copper in an Edinburgh police force whose immoral, vice-filled life simultaneously disgusts and captivates those he comes into contact with, as well it does the audience. As played with bright-eyed talent by James McAvoy, Robertson makes for a terrific antihero, but whether you will want to witness his Machiavellian shenanigans will depend on your tolerance for the depravity.
Comedy doesn’t come much blacker. Adapted a surprising 15 years after publication from Irvine Welsh’s (Trainspotting) novel of the same name, it does feel like there is something a little old-school about both the plot and its characters. Robertson is as vile as they come, routinely abusing his authority and boyish charm by rendering colleagues, prospective criminals and his friends’ wives helpless and sickened by his behaviour, as he stops at nothing to gain a promotion. Yet because of Welsh’s intoxicating way with words – as in Trainspotting, the protagonist’s bitter voiceover is a key feature rather than a narrative cop-out – we too are frequently left laughing helplessly at the outrageousness of it all, then discomfited by sinister moments as Robertson’s mental state declines with the accomplishment of each new moral crime.
Under the dependable direction of relative newcomer Jon S. Baird (he’s no Danny Boyle, but in fact his cinematic restraint is to be commended given the hyperbolic subject matter), McAvoy delivers an excoriating performances as he oscillates between contempt and tears amidst the plethora of ghastliness. Unnervingly, it is almost enjoyable to watch him making life miserable for an excellent Jamie Bell (Billy Elliot and a lot of good stuff since) and everybody’s go-to schmo Eddie Marsan alongside a band of familiar Brit and Scots faces, all of whose acting and zippy line delivery ensures a non-stop energy.
Just so we’re clear – saying the film is well-made and engaging in no way condones its deeds, and the squeamish need not apply. Welsh’s narrative choices are unashamedly questionable, no matter how much they might purport to showcase the unpleasant truths of real-life.
But if you can distance yourself from the racism, sexism, homophobia, misogyny and overall prejudice (no minority group is left unscathed), Filth can be admired for its accomplished, entertaining handling of something you’d actually rather not touch at all.