Filth – Jon S. Baird and the joy of (finally) another successful Welsh adaptation. (Film Review)
“I think there’s something seriously wrong with me.”
With the end of the Thatcher era the decade of the 1990’s produced films books and music that came to typify a writhing underbelly of a Britain that belied the facade the Tory’s wanted to plaster over the top of societal cracks. Thatcher wanted The Empire to be great again, a great Great Britain if you will, and many artists, furious with her particularly soulless brand of neo-liberalism produced works that spoke to the seething ugliness, a case in point being films like Mike Leigh’s Naked and the adaptation of Irving Welsh’s 1993 novel Trainspotting, into a film in 1996. It all looked so promising in the 90’s; the British royal family were in chaos, Trainspotting the film and Irvine Welsh the writer had come to exemplify a new kind of Britain; Oasis and Blur were fighting through the britpop new wave and it looked for a while there that punk hadn’t died, but had successfully morphed. During this decade, Welsh wrote Filth, his third novel.
We’re now fifteen years on from this heyday, Britain is again under Tory rule, and Kate Middleton has successfully brought royalty back. In the year that saw the death of Margaret Thatcher, Jon S. Baird has made a very personal adaptation of the Welsh novel that is his favourite, risking what all adaptations of a Welsh novel risk, comparison with Boyle’s Trainspotting and the tired feeling of an outdated battle cry. Lots of the Welsh tropes exist in Filth, so where Trainspotting brought something new to audiences, Filth can’t use the Welsh trademarks of dark comic wit, substance abuse and general shock-tactic life-trashing debauchery as a vehicle upon which to hang the film, because we’ve seen it all before. This is where the other remakes of Welsh novels, The Acid House and Ecstasy ran into trouble, and gives rise to hesitation on the part of film makers, because Welsh can seem so much a part of a certain time and a certain place. However, if this problem is inverted, its possible to imagine an audience educated by Trainspotting, and prepared for something a little deeper and perhaps more complex structurally and philosophically. That is what Baird has done; he stands on the shoulders of the older film, rather than refusing its influence.
Filth is a character driven narrative, but as a film under Baird’s direction, it subverts the political in favour the personal, becoming a journey into the mind of a person suffering from mental health issues. The political is still present – there is no mistaking Welsh and Baird’s critique of modern Scotland, but Baird lifts the character of Detective Sergent Bruce Robinson to the forefront, sublimates the 90’s ‘expose’ and this way brings Welsh rocketing into the next mellenium with a mind bending ride through the eyes of a very corrupt cop who cannot help but commit to a path of self-destruction. Baird’s Filth achieves the remarkable feat of making the audience feel for one of the most disgustingly tawdry characters ever placed on the screen. He doesn’t do this alone, of course. James McAvoy successfully plays the role of someone ten years his senior bringing such chaos to the role, and such concentration that he impeccably embodies the dire, desperate ugliness of Robinson to the point that we recognise a deeply sick individual. We may not feel for Detective Robinson, but we remarkably don’t hate him either.
This emphasis on the character and his mind give the subject matter the much-needed modernisation of a Welsh adaptation. The journey through Filth may be an ugly one that is almost always unpleasant, but it does manage to forge its own separation from its mini history, in a way paving the way for future Welsh adaptations. Scotland has more colour in Baird’s film than we remember from Trainspotting, giving it a cartoonish quality at times that is self referencing. Scotland still washed a in rain-soaked miserable disdain for its own traditions (there is a rather fun moment when the detective openly blocks his ears in front of a bag-pipe busker) and supported by a chaotic drug and debauchery filled drive for its own annihilation, but the undercurrent of rebellion versus ‘rebel-without-a-cause’ still shines through, so that we feel a great passion for Scotland and its historically intense relationship with itself. The feeling of hopelessness around rallying some sort of organised rebellion is palpable so we see Scotland very much as the recalcitrant brattish child that has grown into the wilfully hate fueled adult in response to the safety of the United Kingdom’s stifling blanket-style family unit. Where Welsh was revealing something to think about in the 90’s, Baird tells us that ugliness is now many decades old, and has settled in like a strain on the rational mind.
For these reasons, Filth wont just appeal (and represent a giant relief) to Welsh fans. It tells a story grounded in the same data, but with enough of a contemporary emphasis that the wild ride moves forward and not backward. This, coupled with McAvoy’s stellar performance, which is the career changer Baird intended it to be, makes Filth a difficult watch, but a gritty and unforgettable one.