Before he won the Academy Award for directing Slumdog Millionaire (2008) and became the artistic director for the opening ceremony for the 2012 London Summer Olympic Games, Danny Boyle distinguished himself in the mid-‘90s as a director of edgy, highly stylized films, including A Life Less Ordinary (1997), Trainspotting (1996), and Shallow Grave (1994), his feature film directing debut.
Set in Edinburgh, Scotland, the plot of Shallow Grave centers around three cynical and self-absorbed friends who share a spacious and well-appointed flat: David (Christopher Eccleston), an accountant; Juliet (Kerry Fox), a doctor; and Alex (Ewan McGregor), a tabloid journalist. They’re in need of a new roommate, and the film opens with a series of disastrous interviews in which prospective roommates are cruelly appraised, then rejected. Finally, Juliet personally interviews one intriguing candidate, a mysterious man named Hugo (Keith Allen) who says he’s returning to the city to write a novel. Juliet and Hugo make a connection, and she convinces David and Alex to take Hugo on as a roommate. The arrangement seems ideal until the morning after Hugo moves in. After he fails to join them for breakfast, the concerned roommates go to his room and discover him dead on his bed. Searching for answers, Alex discovers a suitcase full of money under the bed. Juliet wants to report Hugo’s death to the police, but Alex objects, arguing that if they call the police they’ll have to report the money as well. He proposes hiding the body and keeping the money. I do not want to give away too many details in this review (although readers of this blog can connect the dots based on the title and my brief summary); however, I do not think it is revealing too much to say that a seemingly foolproof plan becomes complicated when fractures in the friendship, not to mention Hugo’s past, begin to catch up with the roommates.
Shallow Grave is not a traditional murder mystery. The suspense is not focused on ‘whodunit’; instead, the suspense is generated from the ways in which the roommates, especially David, internalize their actions and the cumulative effect these actions have on the friendship. A subplot involving Hugo’s associates is not quite as well-developed, but it does help to tie events together at the end.
I first saw Shallow Grave back in 1996, and I think the film has held up surprisingly well. Ewan McGregor brings a lot of charisma to the role of Alex and arguably has the film’s most memorable lines, but Shallow Grave’s real chills come from Christopher Eccleston’s carefully crafted performance as the seemingly milquetoast, but ultimately unstable David. At 93 minutes, Shallow Grave is taut and fast-paced, and it is a good showcase for the talents of director Danny Boyle who, in the 18 years since the film’s release, has produced a diverse and impressive body of work.
Check the WRL catalog for Shallow Grave