Shallow Grave (1994)

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I’m not entirely sure what to think of Danny Boyle’s debut film Shallow Grave. It just so happens that this came out just a year after arguably my favorite film of all time, Naked, which shared much with Shallow Grave in its bleak and often terrifying look at society in the United Kingdom in the early 1990s, with the rise of yuppies and the children of the baby boomers finally taking over the world with their agenda. For any film to be compared to Mike Leigh’s masterpiece is the highest praise I can give, and both films also share a bitterly sardonic sense of humour, one that isn’t found very often in contemporary cinema. To be perfectly blunt, both films are fantastic, but I would probably commit suicide if I had to watch them as a double feature, not because they are bad films, but because their outlook and content are so bleak and disturbing, it is impossible to not be affected by the films. While Naked is in a league of its own, Shallow Grave is also a wonderful and very unique look at society in the United Kingdom in a very strange period of history.

The film tells the story of three flat-mates who live in Edinburgh – Juliet Miller (Kerry Fox), David Stevens (Christopher Eccleston) and Alex Law (Ewan McGregor), who are the very definition of yuppie scum – Juliet is a doctor, David is an accountant and Alex is a journalist – none of them are particularly good, passionate or dedicated about their jobs, and rather choose to entertain themselves by being generally nasty people. Their spacious flat has room for one more person, and they undertake a series of interviews with potential flat-mates, but rather choose to humiliate them and ask them degrading questions. However, when mysterious loner Hugo (Keith Allen) arrives, they cannot reject him. Things take a turn for the worse when they find Hugo dead, and a suitcase full of money in his possession. It is now the responsibility of the selfish flat-mates to dispose of the body and keep the money – but it proves to be a lot more difficult, because none of the trio are actually smart enough to get away with it fully. A tense dark comedy results, showing the corruption of the efforts for power and wealth, and how it can sometimes do irreparable damage to individuals who take it too far.

It’s a bizarre notion, but Danny Boyle was one of the edgiest filmmakers of the 1990s. Trainspotting was an absolute masterpiece, and a great double-feature with Shallow Grave, and A Life Less Ordinary was a strange but memorable twist on the typical romantic comedy film (in the way that it is hardly very romantic). Since then, in the past few years, Boyle hasn’t made much that lives up to these great films, and the director of Slumdog Millionaire, 127 Hours and Steve Jobs is hardly the same visionary behind Shallow Grave. I understand that filmmakers do evolve and become more nuanced as time goes on, but if there is one filmmaker who should have continued in the same vein as of that in his debut film, it is Boyle. Shallow Grave indicates so much more lurking beneath the mind of Boyle, and he explored it wonderfully with Trainspotting.

Trainspotting is a great film, but I will have to be that pretentious cinephile that finds far more meaning in a lesser-known work – Shallow Grave has so much going on, it is impossible to not be perplexed about it. I don’t really want to go into a full-on analysis of the film, because that would probably do exactly the opposite of what Boyle wanted done with this film, but Shallow Grave is a treasure trove of intense psychological analysis. The characters in the film are utterly despicable and endlessly unlikable, yet they are still endearing, somehow. This is probably because we encounter these people on a daily basis, and they are relatable – and for some of us, we may even see ourselves reflected in the characters. This generation is one of arrogance and elitist bullying, and even back in 1994, Boyle was able to predict the rise in public acceptance of elitism and feelings of superiority – and while I also refuse to give a detailed account of this generation’s problems, it is interesting to see a film over two decades old accurately displayed something that has become far too prominent these days. Once again, I miss the old Danny Boyle who made extraordinary and visionary films such as Shallow Grave.

Shallow Grave has a trio of actors who have gone on to have wildly different careers in subsequent years – Christopher Eccleston played The Doctor in the Doctor Who revival series, and Kerry Fox has gone on to do some great films, albeit underseen and often in supporting roles (but she did have a memorable role in this year’s The Dressmaker). Ewan McGregor has gone to be one of the most reliable and excellent actors of his generation, and while he isn’t quite a bankable star, he is still incredibly well-liked, and he is slowly awaiting his major breakthrough, which I look forward to with great anticipation. Of course, as with Trainspotting, Shallow Grave has a group of major characters as the central driving force of the film, but it is Ewan McGregor that steals the show. His role as Alex is complex and fascinating, and is a fantastic debut by an always consistently great actor.

I quite liked Shallow Grave. It was a memorable and deeply fascinating look at society, and much like Naked, it is bleak and spreads seeds of hopelessness. The ending is vague, and I am still questioning what it means, many days later. It is a wonderful film, and Shallow Grave proves that Danny Boyle is someone who made some extraordinary and unique films, and hopefully the Trainspotting sequel next year will bring Boyle back to form, because Shallow Grave is the precise kind of film that made Danny Boyle a great filmmaker.

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