MASTERPIECE: Shallow Grave (1994)

There are many good films released around the world every year. Masterpiece celebrates the best of the very best: genuinely superb works of cinema that come with FictionMachine‘s very highest recommendation. If we had our own Criterion Collection, these are the films we would want it to include.

Is there a British film director that burst onto the scene in such an immediate, fully-formed manner as Danny Boyle? His 1994 comedic thriller Shallow Grave almost feels miraculous, given how completely it showcases the stylistic and storytelling conventions that Boyle would use for the near-30 years of filmmaking that have followed. For sure, its production budget and narrative scope are much smaller than his more recent works, but the visual language, themes, and story choices are all up for display from the very beginning.

Three young professionals, Alex (Ewan McGregor), David (Christopher Eccleston), and Juliet (Kerry Fox), share a flat in Edinburgh. When they invite in a fourth, the mysterious Hugo (Keith Allen), they are shocked to find him dead in his bedroom within a day of arriving, and a suitcase of cash hidden under his bed.

The key to Shallow Grave (and, indeed, Trainspotting, A Life Less Ordinary, The Beach, Millions, and so on) is seeing how otherwise good people can make bad choices that compound upon one other into disaster. From the outset, Alex and Juliet are not entirely wonderful people. Juliet sleeps with men and immediately ghosts them. Alex is a maliciously bitchy bully. Choosing to keep Hugo’s death and secret, in order to pocket his suitcase of money, is only one truly bad decision. It is, however, a very believable one. David, a bookish and withdrawn accountant, seems a much more upstanding figure than his flatmates, and that only serves to make his choice to join in with the theft all the more tragic.

It is never the one choice that betrays someone’s morality, of course. Keeping the money seems a simple decision, but something needs to be done with the body – and that means making sure no one finds it, and if they do? It means making sure that no one can identify whose body it is. Lingering over their plan is also an important unspoken question: how can they be certain no one will come looking for Hugo’s suitcase of cash?

Shallow Grave is impeccably written by John Hodge, who would retain with Boyle immediately afterwards to adapt Irvish Welsh’s Trainspotting to film. It presents a funny comedy that shifts into a bleakly amusing criminal caper, before descending into what is more or less a home invasion thriller. In its darkest moments it is genuinely terrifying, but always with an involuntary gut laugh hiding around the corner – some of its plot developments feel properly audacious.

Boyle nails the casting as well. The film does not contain Ewan McGregor’s debut – he had already starred in TV dramas Lipstick on Your Collar and Scarlet and Black – but without question Shallow Grave put McGregor on the audience’s radar, and has since gone from strength to strength. Kerry Fox is excellent as Juliet, working with a character whose real motivations and personality are always present but never put in focus until the situation begins to collapse. Eccleston, predictably, is outstanding. David, and his psychological descent into paranoia, is typical of Eccleston’s career: bleak, haunted, and miserable, edged with levity but simply so mournful. He has always been a favourite actor of mine; I still think he is arguably one of England’s most underrated screen performers.

Shallow Grave may be Danny Boyle’s first film, but it also absolutely remains one of his best films. It is that rare delight: a film that does everything right from opening shot to applause-worthy finish. It is a modest little masterpiece.

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