I really liked Filth though I’m not sure it works. James McAvoy is at each instance both believable and extraordinary as a man on the verge of a nervous breakdown. But the arc of the performance doesn’t cohere: he keeps the audience onside whilst he does the most heinous things but he doesn’t make us feel for nor empathise with his character. Filth does have a very interesting structure, however, alternating between the external manipulations of Detective Sargeant Robertson (McAvoy) to lie, cheat, fuck and blackmail his way into a promotion and the internal state of mind of someone who’s drinking too much and taking too many drugs as a way of mourning a relationship. The film is structured so that the first part seems more about the scheming to get a promotion, with all the attendant shenanigans, whilst the latter part unfolds seamlessly into an investigation into Robertson’s state of mind; but with the process of solving the problem leading to surprise twist, where the ‘solution’ to the conundrum is revealed as interiority externalised. It’s all very cleverly done and rather thrilling.
The film does make a nasty character doing nasty things seem very funny. However, It is not very appealing to look at nor is it very expressive with its look; the image has too much white which makes what I’m sure is a deliberate graininess unappealing in spite of the film’s full use of colour (someone’s been experimenting a tad too much during the colour-correction stage of the process). There’s clearly been an attempt to make interesting images, although in a very theatrical way that can tend towards the artificial: all the imagined pigs and beasts etc. might have been designed for a student production. Yet Filth is also very witty and unafraid . It dares to wink at us directly through McAvoy and indirectly through all kinds of quotations. The viewer will immediately compare Filth to Trainspotting; the film asks us to do the same in relation to A Clockwork Orange: neither comparison flatters Filth.
McAvoy recently seems to be specializing in interesting projects that don’t quite come off: Filth is his third such this year after Welcome to the Punch and Trance. But it is also the best and most enjoyable of the bunch. The acting throughout is superb with Eddie Marson and Shirley Henderson almost stealing the show as a shy henpecked accountant and his baby-voiced bully of a wife. Jamie Bell also stands out in his first portrayal as a man rather than a boy. He’s always interesting in what on the surface might, at least initially, seem a bland role; and he gets even more interesting as he’s given more to play with later in the film. It’s also a brave choice of a role for Bell if he’s still hoping for a star’s career as it’s a one that might be dredged up for a poke and a smear in the future.
I’m not sure Filth will satisfy fans of Irvine Welsh or even fans of Trainspotting. But it’s a very clever film with brilliant and daring performances. It moves quickly and thrillingly and succeeds in getting laughs with very dark material. Filth is also clearly a must for anyone interested in Scotland or Scottish culture; but then I think Filth should be of interest to practically everyone.