Cinema Siren says: James McAvoy’s arresting portrayal makes the film a must-see
There’s this little movie called X-Men: Days of Future Past, which has been critically acclaimed and deservedly found a fair amount of success at the box office this summer. Although celebrated for the impressive, awards-laden ensemble cast, Its success is in no small part a result of the oft-overlooked acting chops of a certain Scottish actor. James McAvoy, as the young Professor X, draws the audience into the maelstrom but keeps us centered. In much the same way, he draws viewers in to the new indie release Filth, which is in selected theaters nationwide and on demand, and to quote the movie, let’s just say he “turns off their gas.” He keeps a strangle hold on them for the entire film’s duration. Be advised, though, Filth, as the name implies, is not for the easily offended or squeamish.
The movie’s story is based on a beloved cult novel by Welsh Irvine, who wrote Trainspotting. Corrupt Scottish cop Bruce “Robbo” Robertson (McAvoy) manipulates and bullies his way up the ladder to success while secretly battling substance abuse, psychosis, and paranoid hallucinations. He is married, has a young daughter, as well as various colleagues and supposed friends, and all these relationships are in serious jeopardy. He plows through his experiences like a wounded bull, then, during moments of introspective lucidity, recognizes how fast he is plummeting out of control. At one point Robbo pleads to colleague detective Drummond (Imogen Poots) as he struggles to keep his visions at bay. He says regretfully, “I used to be a nice guy.”
As lead character Bruce “Robbo” Robertson, a personification of bigotry and misogyny, he manipulates, charms, and cajoles all those around him even as he circles the drain of personal disaster. He is somehow both despicable and commanding of our pity.
At the Film Society at Lincoln Center Q&A, McAvoy explained his attraction to playing Robbo and his way of connecting with the audience this way, “I was interested in a film that’s about a guy with a raging inferiority complex whose vast self loathing, alcohol, and drug problems have led him to a place of mental instability where he is falling apart and loveless. The whole time he is trying to pretend to himself as well as the rest of the world that he’s a strong alpha male who is in control of his life. I have compassion for him because I don’t think any of us are that far away from a skewed perception of the world or ourselves. I feel for this guy. As much as he is the most horrible of men, I pity him. I don’t forgive him, but I’m really interested in how he got where he is, because it can happen to anybody.”
Watching Filth is like falling down a rabbit hole with a drug addict holding a gun to your head. Somehow, though, the film itself becomes like a drug, and seeing it and the lead character’s personal journey through to the end becomes like a compulsion.
Welsh’s novel was famously considered impossible to translate to film, but director Jon S. Baird believed he found a way, writing the screenplay and helming the film on a small budget. He was recognized for his work by winning the London Critics Circle Film Award for Breakthrough British Filmmaker and being nominated for a British Independent Film Awards (BIFA) as best director. As to his casting, director Jon S. Baird said they had believed James McAvoy to be too young and innocent looking to play the role, until McAvoy came in and transformed himself into Robbo in a matter of seconds. After his audition, they were convinced. He says now they can’t imagine anyone else playing the character.
For McAvoy, who won both the Empire Awards and the BIFA for Best Actor, It is a masterwork of acting, a definite role where he calls upon every aspect of his considerable talent, switching his emotional perspective on a dime, from controlled to imploding in a matter of seconds. He plays with the audience’s allegiance with such bravura one wonders why the actor’s profile remains so under Hollywood’s A-list radar, even given X-Men: Days of Future Past. Filth is filled with strong supporting performances, not least Shirley Henderson as bored wife with a wondering eye Bunty, and Eddie Marsan as Robbo’s “best friend” and cuckold Bladesey. James’ sister Joy McAvoy shows noticeable presence in her brief but memorable appearance as hooligan moll Estelle. James McAvoy’s no-holds-barred, fearless performance, however, is the reason Filth is a must-see.
Director Baird’s vision doesn’t always work onscreen, but it is more the fault of trying to stay as true to the book as possible. By adding some elements and subtracting others, he is sometimes muddying the story to the point of confusion. Whether intentionally or not, he leaves some aspects of the film dangling without explanation. Composer Clint Mansell left the film mid-production but was able to return and finish his score, and Filth is the better for it. He captures Robbo’s essence, his struggle, and the many facets of his self destruction, as if it is the soundtrack going on inside the character’s head.
It is interesting to note that for the nearly six months between Filth’s release in the UK and it being shown in the US, the aggregate score on Rotten Tomatoes remained at 78%. Now it is plummeting steadily, proving once again appreciation for British sensibilities and the subject matter directors in the UK are willing to tackle, which often offer unique, less palatable perspectives, is lost on American critics.
That is unfortunate, but it doesn’t have to be a loss for potential audiences here. While it’s true the story is dark and twisted, and the humor equally so, its study of the last stages in a man’s unraveling mental stability is fascinating and a cinematic journey well worth taking.
If this doesn’t make movie lovers into fans of actor James McAvoy, who altered his fresh face from looking younger than his 34 years to a weary, bleary-eyed, hungover, and rather unpleasant looking 40-something, nothing in the world will do so. Robbo is despicable, yet he still finds a way to draw the audience to him in Filth. For the love of bagpipes, give the boy an Oscar already.
4 1/2 out of 5 stars