Bruce Robertson is the world’s worst police officer. He drinks on the job, he’s a drug addict, he blackmails his “friends”, he treats women and children like dirt; and he does it all with a laugh. Thankfully, he’s only the main character of upcoming film, Filth, adapted from Irvine Welsh’s (Trainspotting) novel of the same name by filmmaker and fellow Scotsman, Jon S. Baird. For a character so dark, who could possibly imagine the evil and twisted influences that lurk inside the mind of his director?
“I’ve actually always loved musical theatre,” Baird says. And after seeing the film, somehow, that makes sense. The brutally human violence swells like violins. The actors practically sing four letter words in a rhythmic Scottish brogue. And every inch of the screen is packed with overwhelming colour; from bleak grey skies, to mountains of white cocaine, neon blues, and scarlet blood. Filth is a musical without the songs.
“My uncle worked on the south coast of England as a joiner, and we’d visit a couple of times a year,” Baird says. “I saw My Fair Lady on those trips. Oliver, Phantom Of The Opera… I remember that euphoric feeling as I left the theatre each time.” And it seems that sense of euphoria has trickled into his filmmaking. Filth operates on a level of sensory overload. It’s somehow both grittily real and surrealist. It’s a crime procedural on the surface and a neon nightmare underneath. So, how deliberate was the heightened language of the musical to the film?
“People had tried to adapt this book in a realist style before, but it never worked,” Baird refers to Irvine Welsh’s novel, which has been labelled unfilmable countless times over. Apparently, it wasn’t. Baird admits that the theatre experiences from his childhood had “crept in” to the film even as early as the writing stage. “For it to work, it needed to be bigger in every way,” he continues. “The score, the costume design… Everything had to be dialled up to ten.”
All of this heightened madness is anchored by what is quickly being proclaimed as the performance of James McAvoy’s career. And, rightfully so. McAvoy is primarily seen as the pretty face at the front of cute kids films such as The Chronicles Of Narnia. Yes, he’s the goat person, AKA Mr. Tumnus. (Feel like ruining your childhood? In this film we learn that Mr. Tumnus likes being choked during sexy times. I know, right?)
And yet this film see’s McAvoy in psychotic meltdown mode as he drinks, snorts and punches his way through the Edinburgh crime world. He’s clearly relishing his chance to play the bad guy, so keeping him in check must have been quite a task for Baird. “James loved the script, but we knew we had to keep [his character] empathetic,” he says. “And that’s where the comedy plays such a huge part in the film.”
And it’s funny, in the blackest interpretation of the word. Police brutality, murder and drink spiking are all played with a (sometimes literal) wink to the audience. This type of so-black-it’s-smoking comedy has long been a fixture of cult films, but has seldom crossed over to a mainstream audience. “Yes, if you don’t laugh in the first five minutes of this film, then it’s going to be a tricky film for you,” Baird says of an opening that lays all of Bruce’s, let’s say, idiosyncrasies out in the open. “If you get that it’s not racist or homophobic, that it’s going to come back to haunt him, you’ll enjoy it. If you don’t get it, then you might struggle with this movie.”
We’re no strangers to the cocktail of dark comedy and crime. In fact many of Australia’s most successful films and TV shows have mined this territory. It’s a genre that Baird says is common between us and the Scottish, sharing a darker sense of humour. Does this make Baird a dark character himself? “I just thought it was funny,” he laughs.
And for a man with a background in BBC Comedy, and a love of theatre, this is entirely plausible. Both forms take on failure and misery as prime sources of entertainment. In fact, with the increasingly mainstream pull that US cable series such as Breaking Bad and Eastbound & Down have, it seems that now more than ever, the world is embracing the anti-hero. But why?
“Because they’re more real. Because we’re flawed as a species,” Baird says. “If you like escapism, that’s fine. But there’s something more exciting about watching somebody who’s morally uncertain, and recognising parts of yourself in them.”
This is brave storytelling, as it seems designed to push a portion of the potential audience away. If you’re asked to recognise yourself in an evil character, what if you don’t like what you see? Surely there’s a risk in creating a film that asks these questions. “Every day was a risk,” Baird says. “But that was the very thing that eventually attracted everybody to do it. It was a difficult film to finance initially.” When pressed for a reason, he answers simply, “Nobody wanted to touch it.”
The risk, it seems, has paid off. Filth is now the second highest grossing R rated film in the UK of the year, behind only Django Unchained. This qualifies it to sit amongst Trainspotting and Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels in the top ten R rated films in UK history. Baird is quick to credit the cast, crew, the source material and the marketing campaign in taking the film from being an “arthouse movie” to a “mainstream film”.
But there’s more to it than that. Sure, McAvoy is dynamite on screen. The rest of the cast is superb. The production is top notch, and the marketing was exciting. But this is the first UK film in years that has felt legitimately dangerous. Like anything could happen at any time. And that all comes down to Baird’s directing.
So, with this his second feature film, what’s next for the young filmmaker? Will we see more punk-rock violence? Or perhaps a musical from the self-professed Baz Luhrmann fan? “Whatever it is, it needs to be interesting, and it needs to be bold,” he says. “What’s the point of doing something that everyone else is doing?”
BY CAMERON JAMES
Filth opens in cinemas on Thursday November 21.