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Back  in the mid 1990s, when British cinema was  still basking in the  success  of Working Title’s Four Weddings and a  Funeral, Danny Boyle’s  Irvine Welsh adaptation Trainspotting seemed  hugely refreshing simply  because it wasn’t a romantic comedy or a  costume drama. Boyle filled  the film with running, jumping, fighting,  swearing and lashings of  Britpop music. The social message was neither  here nor there. The fact  that the characters were “skagboys” from Leith,  struggling with heroin  addiction, wasn’t an issue, either. What  mattered was the patter, the  madcap energy and mood of defiance.

 

Scripted  and directed by Jon  S Baird, whose last film was 2008’s Cass, the  latest Welsh adaptation  shares some of the Trainspotting energy. It  takes a determinedly  worm’s-eye view of human nature. It is obscene,  puerile and cynical by  turns – and that’s its glory. The producers  reportedly struggled to  find financiers who would go near such miasmatic  material. Nonetheless,  thanks to a tremendous performance from James  McAvoy, the film has an  emotional kick that you wouldn’t expect.

 

“Their  whole meaning  and virtue is in their unredeemed lowness, not only in  the sense of  obscenity, but lowness of outlook in every direction  whatever,” George  Orwell wrote admiringly of Donald McGill’s saucy  seaside postcards. The  same applies to many of the scenes in Filth. The  early moments, in  which McAvoy’s corrupt Edinburgh policeman Bruce  Robertson is first  seen running amok, are grotesquely funny. Detective  Sergeant Robertson  lies, cheats, plants evidence, takes drugs,  blackmails young women into  having sex, makes obscene phone calls and  uses every ruse he can in  his bid to win promotion at work. At first,  McAvoy plays the character  as one of those pantomime-style villains who  always seems to be tipping  us the wink as he dreams up his next act of  skullduggery. He takes  such relish in his own bad behaviour that we  can’t help rooting for  him. Only slowly do we become aware of how  damaged the character really  is. Robertson, we gradually learn, is a  manic depressive whose  glamorous, Gilda-like wife has long since  abandoned him.

 

It’s a  measure of the strength of McAvoy’s acting  that he is able to play  Robertson as a larger-than-life Iago-type at the  beginning of the film  but then, later, to show his vulnerabilities and  the extent of his  self-deception. There is nothing comic at all about  the sequences in  which he roams the Edinburgh streets in drag or sits  alone in his  squalid home. Baird’s screenplay may chronicle his decline  but it never  lapses into sentimentality. Even at his most suicidal,  Robertson isn’t  asking for our sympathy.

 

The film-makers have  surrounded McAvoy  with some redoubtable character actors. Shirley  Henderson is in  typical scene-stealing form as Bunty, the amorous  middle-aged housewife  whom Robertson bombards with obscene calls and  tries to seduce. There  is an affecting performance, too, from Eddie  Marsan as Bunty’s  hen-pecked husband, the accountant and freemason  Clifford Blades, who  mistakenly regards Robertson as his most loyal  friend. As he also shows  in Uberto Pasolini’s new film Still Life,  Marsan excels at playing  mild-mannered men, trampled on by their bosses  and colleagues.  Meanwhile, John Sessions is enjoyably earnest as  Robertson’s boss, who  dreams of being a screenwriter.

 

Not all of  the gambits work. The  highly stylised, phantasmagoric scenes in which  Robertson encounters  his psychiatrist Dr Rossi (Jim Broadbent) seem like  discarded outtakes  from The Rocky Horror Show. The sequence in which  Robertson and his  colleagues photocopy their genitals at the office  party veers off into  Loaded territory. The portrayal of some of  Robertson’s colleagues  verges on lazy, sitcom-style caricature. The  references to A Clockwork  Orange seem leaden and obvious. As Robertson’s  mental condition  deteriorates, so does the coherence of the  storytelling. We are so  accustomed to his venality and sleaziness that  it is hard to take  seriously his yearning for the woman whose husband –  in an act of  wholly uncharacteristic selflessness – he tries to save  from a heart  attack.

 

Director Baird uses several of the same  Edinburgh  locations (the Royal Mile, the Grassmarket) that are also seen  in new  Proclaimers musical Sunshine on Leith (see separate review),  However,  Filth doesn’t offer a view of the city that its tourist chiefs  will  much enjoy. Early in the film, we see various sickly looking locals  eating pies and drinking whisky as Robertson walks down from Edinburgh  castle, extolling Scotland’s main contributions to world culture,  namely  whisky and television. (The scene  echoes the famous “It’s shite  being  Scottish, we’re the lowest of the low” lines yelled by Ewan  McGregor’s  Renton in Trainspotting.)

 

Filth doesn’t have the  formal  inventiveness that Boyle brought to Trainspotting. What it does  possess  is chutzpah. The film-makers are ready to try anything, from  torture  sequences to singalongs of “Silver Lady” with David Soul, to  provoke a  response. At its worst, its gestures seem like adolescent  shock tactics.  However, there are frequent moments when the film is  very witty indeed.  Baird’s main achievement is to provide a platform  for McAvoy to give  surely his richest screen performance to date.  Whether in X-Men: First  Class or The Last King of Scotland, we’re used  to seeing him in  conventional leading-man roles. He has never played  anyone remotely as  sleazy as Bruce Robertson before. Somehow, he gives  Irvine Welsh’s  foul-mouthed, psychopathic copper pathos and even a hint  of tragic  grandeur. McAvoy played Macbeth on stage not long after  acting in Filth –  and you get the sense that Robertson was the perfect  preparation for  stepping on to Shakespeare’s blasted heath.

 

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