Published on May 28th, 2014 | by Dave Scaddan1
Writer and director Jon. S. Baird brings Irvine Welsh’s crooked cop story Filth to the big screen with James McAvoy as dirty detective Bruce Robinson.
There’s nothing dirtier than a dirty cop, unless it’s a movie about a dirty cop. Ever since Popeye Doyle was scripted as a bigot and an officer with a reckless abandon that allowed no consideration of public safety, the world of cinema has loved to smear some grime on its police. Cop dramas are so much more exciting when the line between good guy and bad guy are blurred, and Hollywood knows this. The dirty cop is one of the most common supporting characters in post-seventies film, and the role of dirty cop as leading man has been evolving for years from the rough-but-righteous Dirty Harry to the downright despicable Bad Lieutenant. Filth, the fourth cinematic adaptation of an Irvine Welsh publication, takes us as deep into the gutter of corrupted authority as any of these films, with James McAvoy in the lead role of Bruce Robinson.
Bruce is an Edinburgh detective with one eye on a promotion and the other on whatever depraved brand of excess his badge can afford him. With seemingly no conscience or limitations, this character enforces the law when it suits his selfish, pathetic needs, and breaks it for all the same reasons. He’s not quite as downcast as the Bad Lieutenants played by Harvey Keitel, and later Nicolas Cage, but he’s crazier, craftier, and just as likely to loll in licentiousness until your jaw drops or clenches. Many of the most vice-ridden moments of Irvine Welsh’s novel make their way into the film, but voiceover narration has a hard time getting as gritty as text on paper, especially when that text is penned by a novelist who specializes in grime.
As an adaptation of a 400-plus page novel into a 97-minute film, Filth has all the prerequisite shortcomings one would expect. Irvine Welsh’s immaculately developed characters are forced to emerge as quickly as an editor can slap a name in a graphic on a frozen frame (hey, just like Danny Boyle did in Trainspotting!) and those characters become caricatures by necessity. This isn’t a huge problem though, since the cops Welsh created in his novel do fit nicely into certain cookie-cutter types, like the modern metrosexual Peter Inglis, the young, dumb, and full of aplomb Ray Lennox, and the prettily professional Amanda Drummond. The adaptation is not inaccurate or unfaithful, just thinner, as these things always are.
I was very curious to see what writer/director Jon S. Baird would do with the portions of the story where Welsh had Bruce Robinson’s parasitic tapeworm take over the narration in a stroke of bold, disgusting genius. I was not disappointed, though, to see that this approach was avoided in film, seemingly replaced by Bruce’s paranoid fantasies of having his dark past revealed by a cartoonish psychiatrist gleefully played by Jim Broadbent. Baird gives Robinson a kind of bipolar outlook, one which he tries to combat with all the wrong medicines, and the film uses animal masks on the faces Robinson sees to convey his slipping hold on reality. The effect is perhaps not as frightening as it’s meant to be, but it does give the film a certain psychotic style that’s in tune with Welsh’s writing.
James McAvoy plays both sides of Bruce Robinson quite well, in a role that’s more demanding of him than his typical fare. The confident man’s man, out-with-the-boys side of McAvoy’s performance is throaty and brash, while the broken, bevvied-oot jakey side is distant and sad, making some of the film’s twists and tricks of narrative easier to ride with. But Filth the film has some definite third act issues, even though it sticks very closely to the plot of the page-turner of a novel. It’s the compression of story issue again. Welsh had as many pages as he needed to take us through Bruce’s sick, sad, dirty cop psychosis and all of its eventually revealed levels. Filth the film needs to find ways to do the same in about fifteen minutes of screen time, which makes it a tough sell. Baird avoids a denouement disaster, but if viewers have read the novel, they will likely sense a sprint to the finish.
Hats off to indie UK movie standby Eddie Marsan, who plays a perfect straight man to McAvoy’s plotting psycho. Marsan gives exactly the performance Filth needs to offset McAvoy’s tortured deviance and to remind us that the world this film is set in has some normalcy, just none that Bruce won’t corrupt if and when it suits him.
The end product of Filth the film is that it’s not as filthy as the novel, and for some that will be a good thing. Years ago, my week-long foray into the mind of Bruce Robinson had me cringing at nearly every paragraph, voyeuristically turning the pages to delve into whatever unthinkable debauchery Bruce indulged in next. Filth the film is nearly as dark in content, but not nearly as dark in tone. We must remember that Bruce Robinson was a character that Irvine Welsh crafted over the course of several years, first using him as a minor character in some of his Acid House stories before developing him into a full-on main character and narrator. This development allowed Welsh to give this fascinating character some nuances that McAvoy and Baird simply can’t conjure, though they typically replace them with serviceable surrogates.
There are several satisfying nods to the novel, like the pack of purple tins (Tennent’s Super, a 9% canned lager that’s one of the highest alcohol per volume per dollar beverages available in Scotland) that sits in Robinson’s shopping cart at one point, free to be noticed or ignored. In the novel, realizing those tins are in his cart makes for a sad epiphany for Bruce, as he sees them as symbols of his fall from grace. There’s also the scene where Bruce serves his houseguest a glass of blended McRobert scotch, while pouring a glass of 12-year old Kiltyrie for himself. It’s just one of many subtle moments from the novel that elucidate what a conniving, duplicitous prick Bruce is, but if you’re not careful, you just might find yourself chuckling at it or giving a nod to his savvy.
Filth the film is not to be missed by Welsh fans, but it’s not to be held in the same light as the novel either. The best thing would be for people to do what many once did with Trainspotting, to see the film and then go tracing back to the far superior experience of reading the novel (and then to watch the film again, because immersion in Welsh’s Scotch vernacular makes it easier to understand the language of a film that doesn’t pander, slang-wise). Either experience will leave you feeling like you need a wash after, and it goes without saying that you’ll need to scrub harder after 400 pages of reading than you will after an hour and a half of screen time. Filth isn’t just what Bruce’s father once called him, or a slang term for the Scottish police force, it’s also what you need to be prepared for when you delve into the mind of Detective Sergeant Robinson.