Shallow Grave (1994)

Shallow Grave (1994) – Danny Boyle has made his mark on modern cinema. He’s directed horror (28 Days Later…), science fiction (Sunshine), romantic comedy (A Life Less Ordinary), true-life drama (127 Hours), and a family film (Millions). He’s won the Academy Award for Best Director for the Best Picture-winning Slumdog Millionaire. He’s made an impact on the London stage, directed the highly acclaimed new production of Frankenstein for the Royal National Theatre. Later this year he will be behind the Opening Ceremony for the 2012 Summer Olympics in London (picking up the gauntlet that was thrown down by Chinese film-maker Zhang Yimou in 2008). In 1996, his film Trainspotting took the world by storm. However, it was two year earlier when Boyle, screenwriter John Hodge, producer Andrew MacDonald, and star Ewan McGregor first made their mark on the world of cinema. Shallow Grave hit the British film scene like a punch in the gut, marking a change from the big-budget period dramas or the low-key social realism that dominated the country’s cinematic output. Shallow Grave was less concerned with conventional morality as most English cinema of the time (and was originally planned to be titled Cruel). So how does the inception of one of the U.K.’s great film-makers stack up against the oeuvre he was built in the ensuing years?

Juliet Miller (Kerry Fox), Alex Law (Ewan McGregor), and David Stephens (Christopher Eccleston) are flatmates in a rather nice apartment in Edinburgh. Alex is an outspoken jerk, David is a timid accountant, and Juliet seems to enjoy the two of them (as well as other men) constantly seek her affections. They regularly interview for a fourth roommate, but put the applicants through such a ringer that no one seems to want the extra room. Eventually they find one man named Hugo (Keith Allen, who [fun fact] is the father of singer Lily Allen and Game of Thrones star Alfie Allen). Hugo seems to pass their oh-so-high standards and they let him move in… only to discover his drug-overdosed corpse a day or so later. They also find a fuckton of money in one of his drawers. Alex immediately thinks they should keep it. Juliet agrees. David has misgivings but is soon talked into it. They immediately go about the business of disposing of Hugo. Of course a pair of thugs (Peter Mullan and Leonard O’Malley) is also looking for the money and drugs and a pair of police inspectors (Ken Stott and screenwriter John Hodge) are looking into a burglary in the building… Trouble is coming, but for who exactly?

Shallow Grave plays a lot like Danny Boyle’s riff on the Coen Brothers’ Blood Simple. It’s that kind of early-90s neo-noir that a lot of film-makers were going for. Boyle being Boyle, however, does it better than most (though perhaps not better than the Coens). Boyle had Fox, McGregor, and Eccleston live together for a couple weeks before filming and the three do seem to have a bond that gets frayed as the movie goes on. Eccleston in particular does well in a role that deliberately goes a different direction than a comparable role in a different film would. Boyle was working cheap on this first film but he still directs it with the style that has helped to advance his career. Some film-makers like Quentin Tarantino or Bryan Singer manage to knock it out of the park on their first film, delivering a final product that makes you proclaim your astonishment that they have never made a feature film before this accomplished piece of cinema you just watched. By the time Shallow Grave was rolling out to an international audience the director/writer/producer/star combination was already at work on Trainspotting, thereby cementing their place in film history. Shallow Grave marks only the first step on that film-making journey, but it’s a damn impressive one worth checking out.

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