Narnia’s goat-man has delivered a powerhouse performance in Filth. But don’t bet on him winning any major awards.
Move out of the way Charles Bronson. Listen to Huey Lewis and the News somewhere else Patrick Bateman. Go get a proper haircut Anton Chigurh. There’s a new sociopath in town; he goes by the name of Bruce Robertson and he’s fucking insane. He’s also a racist, sexually deviant, alcoholic, drug addicted, hallucinating, manipulative, psychotic police detective who takes away little boys’ balloons and forces underage girls to suck him off.
McAvoy gives Filth some much-needed humanity. No easy feat with such an inhuman character
It’s hard to imagine, then, that a role that seems so suited to a pre-Fockers De Niro or Tom Hardy is in fact played by that weird half goat man from Narnia. But in Bruce Robertson, James McAvoy finally seems to have arrived. Don’t get me wrong; he’s always been a good actor, but never really a great one. He’s the James Milner of the acting world, if you will. He’s always given solid, believable performances, but never ones that you’d recall a couple of years later. Trust me, you will with his latest one.
Bruce Robertson and, by extension, Filth could so easily have been crude, shallow and superficial, like Miley Cyrus. An archetype of insanity. But it’s James McAvoy’s performance that prevents Robertson from becoming a caricature and injects the film with some much-needed humanity. No easy feat with such an inhuman character. There’s a scene where Bruce is having a wank over a home video of his wife and daughter, whilst at the same time sexually harassing his best friend’s wife over the phone. Now that scene is all kinds of fucked up, but McAvoy’s performance prevents it from coming across like a vulgar attempt at shocking the audience, and instead makes it a tragically pitiful act by an incredibly screwed up human being.
And that’s part of what makes McAvoy’s performance so remarkable. At the beginning of the film, he really is just a bad person, like to his very core. There is no redeeming aspect of his personality. There’s not even the grudging admiration at how well he manipulates people, because he is just that big of a dick. But by the end, that contempt has all but pretty much disappeared, replaced with some sort of reluctant empathy as more and more of him is stripped away. He’s just too sorrowful to properly hate. It’s the same reason no one ever hated Gollum – you just can’t hate someone so wretched.
James McAvoy is not going to win an Oscar for Filth, even though it’s the performance you sense the actor had been searching for
It’s a performance worthy of an Oscar. It’s a performance that should win an Oscar. It’s a performance that won’t win an Oscar. To begin with, he’s Scottish, playing a Scottish man in a film set in Scotland, based on a book by a man from Scotland and directed by a man, yup you guessed it, from Scotland. That is a lot of Scotland, and whilst that’s not a bad thing or anything, it’s just not exactly ever going to win you an Oscar. It’s even less likely this year, with Oscar’s best friend Tom Hanks playing the type of real-life American hero the academy gets stiff for. What chance does a perverted Scottish guy have against such glorious American Americanness?
Just have a look back at past winners. Anthony Hopkins was the last person to win best actor for playing a psychopath, and that was all the way back in 1991. You could argue that Christoph Waltz and Javier Bardem both won supporting awards for similar characters, but they’re a lot slicker, Hollywood appropriate characters with big studios and big directors behind them, whilst Filth is significantly smaller and British. If it was produced by the Weinsteins, set in LA and starred Brad Pitt you would bet your bottom dollar that there would be a little gold statuette with their name engraved on it.
So no, James McAvoy is not going to win an Oscar for his performance in Filth. He should, but he won’t. All we can do in the meantime is just appreciate what a performance it is. It’s the performance you sense McAvoy had been searching for with Trance and Welcome to the Punch earlier this year. Let’s just hope some of Robertson has rubbed off on his Professor X. How fun would a psychotic, sex-crazed Professor X cruising around in his wheelchair be?
All images: Lionsgate