‘It’s a parable of mental illness, and cognitive dissonance,’ Irvine Welsh said an interview on the Filth movie adaptation of his novel about a corrupt detective. Book and film follow the descending spiral of Bruce Robertson, an Edinburgh detective tasked with solving a racist murder. Despite officially leading the investigation, Robertson makes no effort to solve the case. He’s more interested in seducing every woman in sight, carrying out various lethal intrigues against his friends and colleagues, and indulging himself in Grouse, pornography and cocaine. But excess comes with a price: Robertson is infested first with a horrendous genital rash, then by a tapeworm that eats all the cheap mass-processed food Robertson throws down his neck. The tapeworm appears literally superimposed over the text, obscuring Robertson’s narrative and increasingly dominating the book as Bruce begins to lose it and the tapeworm interrogates his back story and motivations.
The book is set in December 1997. The vibe is very New Labour, post MacPherson, a glossy sheen over the same old candid evils. Although Robertson is prejudiced in just about every way one can be, littering his narrative with racist, sectarian and misogynist epiphets, he must be careful not to show his prejudices in public, particularly as he is investigating the murder of a Ghanian diplomat’s son. He has to position himself between the old-school non-PC detectives like Gus Bain and Dougie Gillman, and the new graduate cops represented by the assertive liberal feminist Amanda Drummond, who wants to take the Old Town into the twenty-first century, and Robertson’s protégé Ray Lennox. Although Bruce hates Drummond, Lennox is the closest thing Robertson has to a friend and he indulges the younger man – up to a point. The object is to ‘learn a new script’. The games are changing.
This is all very contentious but I don’t believe Welsh had a political head on when he was writing the novel. The story was originally set in a local government office and the cops are generally viewed in non-dramatic scenes of organisational torpor – doing the Screws crossword, attending dull training courses and going out for sandwich runs. The point isn’t that Robertson is a bad cop but that he’s a bad bastard although, as a cop, he has more opportunities for predation. Welsh is fascinated with organisational politics and power relationships. ‘The games are always, repeat, always, being played,’ Robertson tells us. ‘Most times, in any organisation, it’s expedient not to acknowledge their existence. But they’re always there.’ For Robertson the force provides essential camouflage. He grew up in a mining town where he was victimised and told that he was essentially evil. ‘But you must have protection, because the normals will incarcerate you in order to protect themselves. So the police force always seems the best bet.’
Bruce Robertson’s defining characteristic is that he’s a schizophrenic: he doesn’t know who he is, and his head teems with voices: ‘all those menaced souls clamouring for attention and recognition.’ As his mental state deteriorates, he refers to himself in the plural pronoun (‘We still have a wrap of coke on us and there must be a good half a G left and we rub a load of it into our gums’) and complains ‘Why pick on Bruce, there’s others too, why can’t they fuckin well dae anything.’ As a cop, he’s been able to turn that weakness into a strength: he can be the tough Fed rep in the canteen, the sensitive strongman around available women, the enlightened professional negotiating with bosses and diversity trainers. He’s an Iago with a thousand faces, but the masks are eating into his skin. ‘Frightened that you wouldn’t cast a shadow when you faced the sun,’ the tapeworm tells him, ‘you stopped looking up at it.’ Crime fiction is full of uncompromising detectives who resist politically correct language, and also detectives who put up a good front but are troubled on the inside. Welsh’s genius is in giving us a detective who can play the genre stereotypes to maximum personal gain but who really is a bigot and who really is clinically ill. Towards the end of the book there’s the awful, haunting line: ‘I’m never really alone, but the voices are silent. For now.’
Filth is a clash of narratives. The story Robertson presents to us is basically ‘I’m the best and no one else is any good’ – something most of us buy into, on an ‘insert-name-here’ basis, but one that Bruce takes to extremes, cramming his narrative with ego-boosting affirmations of his prowess as a cop, a player and a lover, and putting everyone else down. The bigoted language, Welsh explains in the film commentary, is a part of this - Bruce is desperate to feel superior to people. But his self esteem is a house of cards. Absolutely everything has to go right, because one yank and the rug unravels: witness his explosive reaction to minor irritations. A twelve-minute wait for a GP’s appointment or an absence of Bruce’s favourite condiments for his sausage roll bring on attacks of towering rage. A greater threat to Robertson’s narrative comes when he discovers that his boss, Bob Toal, has written a spec film script based on the current investigation, in which Robertson is fictionalised as a racist cop who is trying to sabotage the case. Although he can’t admit it even to himself, the script rattles him because it’s a sign of the book’s terrible truth: Bruce’s colleagues knew all the time, and covered up for him.
One problem with the film is that James McAvoy is too young and good looking to effectively portray a middle aged man who never washes his clothes, has turned his suburban home into a hoarder’s cesspool and is the very picture of self neglect. Although in his head Robbo’s a handsome Flashman, in reality he’s clearly a mess. His colleague Amanda Drummond is the only character never to fall for Bruce’s games and lies, and the only person to challenge him effectively:
Bruce, you’re an ugly and silly old man. You’re very possibly an alcoholic and God knows what else. You’re the type of sad case who preys on vulnerable, weak and stupid women in order to boost his own shattered ego. You’re a mess. You’ve gone wrong somewhere pal… You have to get yourself straightened out, and then you might just become the kind of person you imagine yourself to be, although God knows what that is.
I don’t want to knock McAvoy, he turns in a beautiful performance, but never quite manages to convey the sordid heap that the print Robertson has become. Still, the movie storyline is better because it cuts most of Robertson’s baroque backstory, which is more suited to an eighteenth-century gothic novel. In the book Welsh falls for the schoolboy error of diagnosing one’s monsters. In the film the causes of Robertson’s breakdown are more prosaic: he’s alone and he misses his family. Neither excuse his hideous behaviour. And yet the art of storytelling is a sympathy for the devil.