“This is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” That had to be the toast of the end of the production of Shallow Grave, as the writer (John Hodge), star (Ewan McGregor) and director (Danny Boyle) of the defining 90s British film, Trainspotting, began their winning collaboration. In a time that British cinema looked to have been restrained by corsets, visionary (and future Oscar winner) Boyle emerged on the scene with an antidote to the yuppy hangover of the late 1980s. Shallow Grave features three twenty something Scots, living in a share house looking for an appropriate room-mate. On the first night of their new roommate’s stay he dies of a drug overdose. As they’re about to report his death to police they stumble upon a suitcase loaded with cash. Instead of reporting it, they decide to dispose of the body and take their little known associates money for themselves. That decision becomes a cancerous force in their household.
The narrative arc of Shallow Grave is so beautifully executed. Screenwriter John Hodge plays the long game with the consequences for the actions of the characters and compounds the stakes. In the opening act of the film, it could almost be a romantic comedy about the pratfalls of living in a share house in the 90s. Once their new housemate Hugo (Keith Allen) overdoses and money comes into the equation, the film drastically changes. These three ‘too cool’ characters decide to dispose of the body so flippantly that you almost assume that they’re going to pull it off. However once they get to act, it’s so unbelievably traumatic that from that moment on, this trio’s self-destruction is imminent.
Each of the characters mutate along the lines of their profession. Alex (McGregor) uses all of his observed criminal behaviour, as a journalist, for evil. Disposing of the bodies and making it impossible for the police to discover as well as narrativising potential outcomes and alternatives to their situation. Juliet (Fox), the doctor, diagnoses the situation with such proficiency that aligns herself with either Alex, David, or neither character depending what the best course is for self-preservation. David (Eccleston), the accountant, transforms into a human arachnid, burrowing into the depths of the attic waiting for potential threats with the intent to kill to protect what’s his.
McGregor is an infectious presence. His Alex is hell of a lot of fun to laugh along with, but also so damned uncomfortable to watch when he’s put into awkward and dangerous situations because he’s so physically and mentally out of his depth in confrontation. Fox does an incredible job of being both as bubbly as a montage from Pretty Woman; only to shift into Nurse Ratchet from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Eccleston has the meatiest role of the film. He portrays the stiff, calculating accountant in all its boring glory; but once he draws the literal short straw he’s torpedoed by the reality of mutilating a corpse. From that act on his grasp of reality and morality departs. The crazier he becomes, the harder it is to look away.
There’s something so rewarding in revisiting an iconic director’s first work to see what thematic and stylistic through lines endure throughout his/her career. Boyle’s frenetic pace, innate sense of foreshadowing (intercutting to different times and spaces) of impending character collisions and understanding of the primal reception of colour. Even from the earliest film you also see his proficiency crafting the performances and pitch perfect casting decisions. There’s definitely a great homage to Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas as the bodies are disposed of. The first scene, unlike Tommy (Joe Pesci), Jimmy (Robert De Niro) and Henry (Ray Liotta) shows our trio of young professionals dry heaving at the gritty reality of disposing of a body. However, once David (Eccleston) disposes of the two standover men on Hugo’s tail, the next time that he’s at the titular shallow grave it’s flooded by that iconic Goodfellas red light.
Casting Fox and McGregor across from one another was like this strange androgynous echo. At times Fox’s determined resolve, and still upper lip made her look more masculine, while McGregor’s vulnerability (when he got called on his antagonism) and actual cross dressing made several moments that they were indistinguishable.
Shallow Grave is best summed up by a quote from the Joker; “When the chips are down, these civilised people, they’ll eat each other.”
Blake Howard – follow Blake on Twitter here: @blakeisbatman and listen to legacy audio reviews on That Movie Show 2UE here or on top-rating film podcast Pod Save Our Screen, available now on iTunes.
Directed by: Danny Boyle
Written by: John Hodge
Starring: Kerry Fox, Christopher Eccleston, Ewan McGregor, Ken Stott, Keith Allen,