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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on DVDs: Shallow Grave



SHALLOW GRAVE (Also Blu-ray) (Three and a Half Stars)

Scotland/Great Britain: Danny Boyle, 1994 (Criterion Collection)

Like Joel and Ethan Coen’s classic Texas noir Blood SimpleDanny Boyle’s Shallow Grave is a smart, stylish, dark little comedy of murder and money. It‘s a top-chop neo-noir, a straight-on view of an off-kilter society, an Edinburgh rogue’s and semi-rogue’s gallery, with eerily disturbing portraits of people we don’t like all that much (or shouldn’t, but maybe do anyway), but who fascinate and amuse us with their colorful, mad, oddly believable personalities — and also by the  sheer comic ineptitude  with which they let themselves be pulled into a vortex of  danger and evil.

Shallow Grave was director Boyle’s first feature, and it was also a major British audience and critical/festival hit of 1994, whose prizes included the British Film Academy’s Best Picture award. The film also introduced much of the British and international audiences to writer John Hodge, producer Andrew Macdonald, cinematographer Brian Tufano and to three young soon-to-be-famous leads, Kerry Fox, Christopher Eccleston and the magnetically boyish smirker Ewan McGregor.

They play three young professionals who live together in a large, posh apartment in Edinburgh’s toney New Town. Alex Law (played by McGregor) is a bright yellow tabloid journalist and a smart-ass. David Stevens (Eccleston) is a fair, cadaverous-looking, more straight-arrow accountant, who starts off the story, Billy Wilderishly and Sunset Blvd.-ishly, from the morgue. Juliet Miller (Fox) is a doctor, a sexy, foxy smarty pants, and also the woman the other two obviously adore — though none of them, apparently, are sleeping together. Yet.

The apartment has another bedroom which the roommates want to rent out, and so they subject a series of  prospective tenants (including a nice old lady played by McGregor’s real-life mother) to a series of sadistic cross-examinations, after which they invariably nix them and laugh hysterically as their humiliated victims leave. The threesome’s behavior is obnoxiously cruel (Hodge’s script was at one point called “Cruel”), but they do have the merit of being funny and of having good timing, like the movie itself. They also laugh at each other’s jokes, one of the first rules of friendship.


The one potential roommate whom the threesome do seem to like is a close-mouthed chap named Hugo (Keith Allen), who is suave and cold and somewhat sleazy-looking, and who looks as if he doesn‘t laugh at anybody‘s jokes. When they give Hugo the room, he promptly moves in, takes an overdose of drugs and kicks the bucket.  And when they go over Hugo’s effects, before reporting his demise, they discover a suitcase stuffed with cash.

This seems a typical set-up for Boyle, whose propensity for cautionry break-the-bank films might well earn him the nickname “Get Rick Quick” Danny Boyle. But here’s where I stop the synopsis.  Believe me, you don’t want me to go any further, and not out of skittishness or fear, but because you likely and sensibly don’t want to miss the deliciously macabre surprises and ingenious suspense set-pieces Boyle and Hodge keep detonating throughout the movie. Also, I don’t really believe everyone really heeds those little SPOILER ALERT messages we helpfully supply in cases like this, any more than I believe nobody ever skipped to the end of an Agatha Christie murder mystery. And I don’t want to offer an occasion for temptation, like Hugo’s suitcase.

I will tell you though, hopefully without spoiling anything, that there is a grave in this movie, as well as some other finely written and very well-acted characters — including a talkative cop called McCall played by the estimable Ken Stott (of Mike Hodges’  I’ll sleep when I’m dead), and his quiet fellow cop Mitchell (played by Grave’s screenwriter Hodge), and an exceptionally vicious killer played by the excellent actor-director Peter Mullan (of Ken Loach’s My Name is Joe).

Then there’s the spot-on lead trio: David, Juliet and Smart Alex. They may behave sadistically at times, but they aren’t congenitally nasty. They’re something more like an ’80s  middle class version of Evelyn Waugh’s ‘20s Bright Young Things: Thatcher-era Yuppies and Upward Mobes, lacking in empathy, and taking nothing very seriously, until it comes crashing down on them and others. The three don’t really have a moral compass yet, except for David, and his compass, we sense, may get screwed around or smashed.

McGregor, Fox and Eccleston play these three near-perfectly, with a fine mix of comic buoyancy and a more serious, blacker  edge, with just enough empathy to keep us absorbed in their fates, and just enough objectivity to let us see when they’re slipping off the rails.

It’s also easy maybe to see why it was McGregor who became the biggest star of the three — even though Eccleston was about to play Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure in Michael Winterbottom’s 1996 film Jude, while Kerry Fox had already given an absolutely wonderful performance as New Zealand writer Janet Frame in Jane Campion’s 1990 An Angel At My Table. The camera likes them all, but it likes McGregor (and his smirk) perhaps a little more.

The acting throughout is admirable and economical, and so are the writing and directing and the cinema technique. They’re all  what we want from a  sharp-witted, snazzy British thriller –a posh noir worthy of Wilder, worthy of the Coen Brothers, worthy of Clouzot, worthy even of Hitchcock. (One of Shallow Grave‘s many prizes, in fact, was the Golden Hitchcock of the British Dinard Film Festival.) Worthy of Danny Boyle, in fact. Boyle at his best.

They’re all at their best, or at their near best, here, And Boyle, Hodge, Macdonald, Tufano, and McGregor all reunited two years later for an even darker, funnier and more spectacular film: the 1996 Edinburgh lower-depths heroin chronicle Trainspotting, which received what I recall as a 30-minute standing ovation at its Cannes Film Festival premiere.

No one probably ever gave Shallow Grave that long an ovation, despite all its awards. But it’s the kind of movie that puts you on the hook anyway, that drives ruthlessly to the end and stays in your mind long afterwards. And, along the way, despite the fact that the film rarely strays from that apartment, it exposes and tells us quite a lot about the sometimes dark and selfish and heedless world we live in. Or, as “Get Rick Quick” Danny Boyle might say: the morgue’s-eye world, just below the money, just above the grave.

Extras: Commentaries by Danny Boyle, John Hodge and Andrew Macdonald; Interviews with Christopher Eccleston, Kerry Fox and Ewan McGregor; Kevin Macdonald’s 1993 Digging Your Own Grave, a “making of” documentary; Andrew and Kevin Macdonald’s video diary of shopping around the Shallow Grave project at the 1992 Edinburgh Film Festival; Trailer for Shallow Grave; Teaser for Trainspotting; Booklet with excellent Philip Kemp essay.


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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon