Before I went to Scotland, I admittedly had a very narrow idea of the country. Apart from a Charlotte-Tillbury-faced Mary Queen of Scots, I chalked up Scottish culture to the country’s national treasure, James McAvoy.
Thirst aside (not because I’m too mature for celebrity crushes, but because I don’t want to get into it as a media professional), McAvoy has had an impact on me cinematically.
His films have shaped my wide range of tastes. Everything from “The Chronicles of Narnia” and the X-Men films to “Welcome to the Punch” and “Atomic Blonde” has been like candy to me. McAvoy is a real gem to watch.
And of course, we can’t forget about “Atonement.” One simply does not sleep on “Atonement.”
Having actually been to Scotland now, McAvoy’s role in “Filth” really sticks out to me. I actually recognized a few locations.
I watched it again recently when I was trying to wind down for bed. Probably not the best idea.
Warning: This trailer is NSFW with explicit drug references, and yet, is the tamest one I could find.
As vulgar as it is, I read “Filth” as a call-out post for Scotland. It’s putting the racist, homophobic, patriarchal nature of old Scotland on blast. Through absurdist, raunchy storytelling, it’s whispering to us that these oppressive, problematic values are best exemplified and institutionalized by Scottish law enforcement.
Sure, it’s satire, so there’s room for exaggeration. But this reading makes a whole lot of sense to me, especially as an American.
The film is an adaptation of a book by Irvine Welsh. As one of Scotland’s most revered writers, Welsh is better known for an earlier book and film adaptation: “Trainspotting.”
The dark dramedy sparked a cult following when it came out in 1996. And like most independent, gritty, grunge-y films of the era, it ranks on all the critics’ Top 10 lists: case in point, check the British Film Institute’s, The Guardian’s and the city of Edinburgh’s line-ups.
Nearer to Holyrood, Arthur’s Seat and Kilderkin pub, we passed by this shop called Unknown Pleasures. And I know what you’re thinking, but it’s not that kind of establishment.
Every time I neared the place, it wasn’t music that caught my eye, though. It was this little scrap of film culture peeking out from the window: a bright orange shirt emblazoned with the “Trainspotting” logo. Written on it, too, was an excerpt from the film’s most famous monologue. It’s often referred to as the “Choose Life” scene.
Our protagonist Renton, played by Scotland’s other national treasure Ewan McGregor, takes the Mickey out of the popular ’80s slogan “Choose life.”
Similar to how Big Fun’s anti-suicide campaign is depicted in “Heathers,” our edgy, unruly, counterculture protagonists are totally over the saccharine sweetness of it all.
For Renton, “choosing life” isn’t about giving up drugs. It’s about giving up individuality. Instead of embracing your unique beliefs, you devote your life to mindless television, flashy cars and houses, unnecessary appliances, processed food, selfish desires and other pitfalls of consumerist culture that ensure a meaningless life.
Continuing to abuse drugs is Renton’s way of saying forget all of that capitalist, conformist nonsense. The film typically goes hand-in-hand with discussion of Darren Aronofsky’s “Requiem for a Dream,” since both explore themes of addiction.
The film’s sequel has an updated version of this speech to the same effect. I have yet to sit down and watch “T2: Trainspotting.” I have watched McGregor, reprising his role as Renton, absolutely pop off in the new film.
I don’t necessarily agree with Renton’s speech. Yes, a lot of the rhetoric behind anti-drug movements does seem a little classist and glib. (I talked mostly about national identity when I reviewed “Kingsman: The Golden Circle,” but that film also has so much commentary about the “war on drugs” to unpack.)
But I don’t think that living a drug-free life and rejecting mainstream, capital-driven, Western norms are mutually exclusive. Nevertheless, “Trainspotting” is a lot of fun to watch. And more importantly, as film nerd, I’m grateful I found a bit of Edinburgh memorabilia that spoke to me, more than your average vacation souvenir would.