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In the early 1990s, mainstream British cinema seemed to be sinking into a comfortable mulch of Austenry and Dickensiana—tastefully made, well-acted, impeccably mounted period literary adaptations, guaranteed to upset nobody. The energy of the eighties that had given rise to such diverse hits as The Long Good Friday, Chariots of Fire, Gandhi, The Company of Wolves, and My Beautiful Laundrette had dissipated. Mike Leigh and Ken Loach were still in top form, but their politically aware, social-realist work was never intended for a mass audience. It took a trio of feature film first-timers—director Danny Boyle, screenwriter John Hodge, and producer Andrew Macdonald—to shake things up, with a movie that, in Boyle’s words, dispensed with “the moral baggage that British films carry around all the time.”
Hodge was practicing medicine when, after meeting Macdonald at the Edinburgh Film Festival in 1991, he was inspired to try his hand at screenwriting. Macdonald’s background was the most conventionally cinematic: he was the grandson of the Hungarian-born screenwriter Emeric Pressburger, and his younger brother was the director Kevin Macdonald. Boyle, the oldest of the three, had an impressive track record as a stage and television director. He was sent the script of Shallow Grave in 1993. It immediately excited him; he has said that he found it “wonderful—lean and mean and a very clean read.” He was invited to meet with Hodge and Macdonald, who were auditioning potential directors. “The first words out of my mouth were ‘Blood Simple,’ which was crucial, I think—that dedication to the narrative, to the drive of the story.”
Hodge had devised his script so that the bulk of the action could be filmed in a single location: a replica of a highly desirable apartment in the elegant Georgian district of Edinburgh’s New Town, built slightly larger than life-size in a Glasgow warehouse, complete with all utilities connected. As part of the rehearsal process, Boyle had his three principal actors—Christopher Eccleston, Kerry Fox, and Ewan McGregor—live together for several weeks before the shoot in a similar actual apartment, to help make the intimacy between them feel casual and habitual.
Despite a restricted budget, the collaborative style and unanimity of vision (relatively rare in moviemaking) of the producer, writer, and director created a film that feels wholly assured in its narrative drive and single-minded in its intentions. The focus on one key location enhances the sense of a close-textured, borderline claustrophobic chamber piece. The apartment’s residents are professionals in their late twenties: David (Eccleston), an accountant; Juliet (Fox), a hospital doctor; and Alex (McGregor), a tabloid journalist. As the action develops and the tension builds, the three play off one another like musicians, weaving and maneuvering while the lines of sexual attraction, greed, and power fluctuate between them. At first, Alex, cocky and irreverent (this was only McGregor’s second film role, and his first of any substance), seems to be the alpha male, with the buttoned-up David the butt of his jokes, and Juliet lazily aware of both men’s unexpressed desire for her. But gradually, under pressure, their relative positions shift and change.
Boyle’s invocation of the Coen brothers’ first film makes good sense. Shallow Grave shares much of the Coens’ gleeful delight in pitch-black humor, setting up a situation as tight as a coiled watch spring and letting it unwind into mayhem and disaster. Like Blood Simple, Shallow Grave is witty and stylish, fizzing with energy and reveling in its own heartlessness. (At one point, the film’s title was going to be Cruel.) None of the characters are likable, nor are they meant to be; as McGregor subsequently noted, “The accepted rule is that you have to sympathize with the leading characters, but we wanted to break the rules.” The filmmakers’ unsentimental take on their characters is refreshing; no facile excuses are offered. The movie, Boyle emphasized at the time of its release, “is not about class or society, or people being crushed by forces they can’t control. Everybody takes responsibility for their decisions. We didn’t want this film soaked in British social realism.”
Even so, as the director later conceded, it’s not hard to detect a political subtext to Shallow Grave. “It’s really about British society at the time. It’s not a directly political film, yet it’s deeply embedded in post-Thatcherite decay in Britain. Greed, aggrandizement, pleasure, selfishness, individualism. And nothing is worth worshipping other than money.”
The catalyst for the plot is the trio’s search for a fourth person to share the apartment. With cool arrogance, they put prospective roommates through a grueling interview process, amusing themselves by embarrassing the hapless applicants before rudely rejecting them. (The tiny bit part of one of the rejects was played by McGregor’s mother.) Only the saturnine, poised Hugo (Keith Allen) meets their standards. He moves in, and within hours, they find him dead of a drug overdose. Under his bed is a suitcase containing a huge amount of money. Overriding David’s misgivings, Juliet and Alex decide they should keep the money and bury Hugo’s body in the woods, cutting off his hands and feet and smashing his teeth to prevent identification.
This being the movies, an illicitly acquired stash of loot must inevitably bring retribution on anyone rash enough to keep it. (Ten years later, Boyle would direct a more lighthearted treatment of the same theme, Millions, and traces of it can also be found in his multi-Oscar-winning hit of 2008, Slumdog Millionaire.) In parallel with developments in the apartment, we see a pair of ruthless thugs, Andy (Peter Mullan) and Tim (Leonard O’Malley), beating up and torturing various victims as they track down the money. Sooner or later, we know, the two parties will collide. Just how the collision will play out is less predictable.
Cinema, Boyle once provocatively observed, “should be as much like a car crash as possible. Extremes of beauty and violence.” Almost as striking as the film’s caustic energy is the disquieting beauty of its images—something that would become recognized as characteristic of Boyle’s style. When Hugo is found dead, he lies naked, faceup, limbs asprawl, on a bloodred blanket, against a royal blue background—an image with all the cool lushness of a Caravaggio. And when David, growing increasingly (and, as it turns out, rightly) paranoid about the money, retreats to the attic to prepare his defenses, he drills multiple spy holes in the attic floor to monitor movements in the apartment. The shafts of light from below, streaming into the attic’s darkness at various angles, eerily suggest the terrain of a wartime city, blacked out except for searchlights fingering the sky.
At the 1994 Dinard British Film Festival, Shallow Grave picked up the Golden Hitchcock, the festival’s grand jury prize. The link with the Master of Suspense is apt—not for suspense, which the film scarcely deals in, but for the ghoulish relish it takes in the details of death and dismemberment. (The Trouble with Harry, from 1955, which also features the disposal of an inconvenient corpse, comes to mind, as does Barry Foster breaking the fingers of his nude murder victim in 1972’s Frenzy.) When David, despite his protests, is tasked with removing Hugo’s extremities, the sound of the hacksaw rasping on a human wrist bone comes over with scalp-crawling immediacy. And the unwieldiness of maneuvering a corpse down a narrow stairwell has rarely been more graphically depicted. The impact of this scene, as the three clumsily tussle with the black-plastic-wrapped cadaver, is heightened by the contrast with the elegant Georgian curves of the staircase.
Occasional plot elements—torn-up newspapers switched for currency notes, for example—are strictly from stock, as is the character of Ken Stott’s drily quizzical police inspector. Stott, though, plays him impeccably, with deadpan humor, and the casting of the film’s screenwriter, John Hodge, as his by-the-book sidekick, Detective Constable Mitchell, adds an enjoyable in-joke. (“D.C. Mitchell is a rising star,” observes Stott. “Under my tutelage, he will undoubtedly go far.”) Hodge, the man of medicine, slipped another note of self-mockery into the script; when Juliet expresses revulsion at the idea of dismembering Hugo’s body, Alex responds, “But, Juliet, you’re a doctor. You kill people every day.”
The sleek, pared-down narrative dispenses with superfluous exposition. We never learn whether there was a previous fourth resident of the apartment and, if so, what became of him or her. Equally, it’s not explained how the two heavies trace Hugo to the apartment. Such details matter little, if at all. Deft movie references aren’t ruled out, though. David’s opening and closing voice-over (“Oh, yes, I believe in friends”) irresistibly recalls Sunset Boulevard, and at one point, we see Alex watching a television broadcast of the final scene of The Wicker Man, an earlier locus classicus of ruthless, Scottish-located moviemaking.
Shallow Grave was widely acclaimed, and not only at Dinard. It also won the BAFTA for best British film, along with a shoal of other awards, and was hailed as an exhilarating breakthrough for British cinema. The film recouped its modest budget more than a dozen times over, outperforming every other homegrown feature released that year. Boyle, Hodge, and Macdonald, elated by their success, began work on another film, one that would deliver an even more emphatic kick up the staid backside of British cinema two years later: Trainspotting.
Philip Kemp is a freelance reviewer, film historian, and regular contributor to Sight & Sound and Total Film. He teaches film journalism at the University of Leicester in England.