Film and drama

Screen Themes: Trainspotting vs Filth

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Entertainment editor John Turnbull compares two movies based on books by Irvine Welsh — the 1990’s grunge classic Trainspotting and the newly released Filth.  

Author Irvine Welsh is Scottish.  It is important that you know this before reading this review, because both Trainspotting and Filth are very, very Scottish. If you have a problem with accents ‒ as well as words like radge, bufty and gam ‒ you might find the dialogue in these novels (and associated movies) a little hard to fathom…


Released back in 1996, Trainspotting was a blast of fresh air in a cinema year that included pretentious snoozers like The English Patient and flag waving drivel like Independence Day.

Directed by Danny Boyle and starring a cast of virtual unknowns, the film was darkly funny and horrifying in turns, driven by a great soundtrack that included Underworld and the recently departed Lou Reed.

The story of heroin addict Mark Renton (played by a young Ewan McGregor) and his dodgy friends, Trainspotting was defined by one blistering performance — Robert Carlysle as the psychopathic Begbie. Depicted in the novel as a virtual giant with a shaved head, Carlisle takes his slender frame and fills it with such simmering menace that it remains his defining performance; Hamish McBeth would be terrified of Francis Begbie.

Supporting actors such as Kelly McDonald, Jonny Lee Miller and Peter Mullan give solid performances, but it’s Robert Carlisle’s movie — so much so that the actor had to work hard to avoid typecasting as a violent Scottish thug.

Trainspotting’s themes of youth alienation, disaffection and appeal of oblivion still resonate, while the ongoing issues with drug addiction and regulation around the world mean that this (along with films like Requiem for a Dream) should be must watch for all high school students.


When I first read Filth, I was pretty sure that it could never be made into a movie. 

The main reason for this is that a major character in the novel is an intestinal parasite, which gradually takes over the narrative as the anti-hero gradually loses his mind.

I am glad to say I was wrong — Filth has indeed been made into a movie.

Directed by Jon S. Baird (Cass), Filth captures the grimy tone of the novel without making the mistake of being slavishly loyal to the source material – something Welsh adaptations such as Trance and The Acid House were guilty of to the detriment of the film.

Filth stars James McAvoy in a role that should catapult him into the top-tier of his generation, alongside actors like Edward Norton and Tom Hardy. After somewhat wet performances in films like Atonement and Wanted, McAvoy absolutely owns the role of bipolar-cop-without-a-conscience Bruce Robertson.

DS Robertson is a force of nature, corrupt to the core but convinced of his moral superiority, a constant diet of cocaine and booze replacing his prescribed medication to the ongoing detriment of his mental health.

Jim Broadbent plays a psychiatrist who may or may not be real, while Jamie Bell (the former Billy Elliott) plays Robbo’s partner — a junior detective with a healthy appetite for cocaine. Veteran character actor Eddie Marsan plays the hapless Bladesy, a man so meek and forgiving that Robertson can’t help treating him like dirt.

While far from a balanced look at mental health, Filth is hugely entertaining.

The Verdict

Both Trainspotting and Filth hinge around being Scottish, but the protagonists take entirely different views of the situation. 

Early on in Trainspotting, Renton spits:

“It’s shite being Scottish! We’re the lowest of the low! The scum of the fucking earth! The most wretched, miserable, servile pathetic trash that was ever shat into civilization!”

DS Robertson disagrees and, indeed, the first few minutes of Filth contains a joyous yet profanity-laden internal monologue that starts:

“It’s great being Scottish, we’re such a uniquely successful race…”

If you are of a delicate disposition, I could in good conscience recommend neither Trainspotting nor Filth. Both films contain excessive levels of swearing, drug use, nudity and adult themes.

If, on the other hand, any of the previous paragraph’s warnings sound like a good time to you, I recommend both films equally.

Watch them back to back and see if you start talking like you live in Edinburgh…

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