Looking Back At SHALLOW GRAVE - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Looking Back At SHALLOW GRAVE

Tony digs deeper.
Shallow Grave is an oddish, off-beat black comedy that’s so 90s it could be on Ecstasy. Danny Boyle’s directorial debut, it foreshadows his interpretation of Irving Welsh’s Trainspotting with a cogent exploration of the toxic, corrosive effect of a large amount of untraceable money. It poses the question “What would you do?” and invites its audience to think about how far they would go for a life-changing sum. Would anything of your previous life survive? Would it matter?

At its heart, Shallow Grave is the story of three flatmates, David (Christopher Eccleston), a shy accountant desperate to be interesting, Alex (Ewan McGregor), a local journalist and soul-crippled cynic, and Juliet (Kerry Fox), a doctor at an Edinburgh hospital.

It’s important to understand that the three are very much flatmates, rather than in any real sense friends – there’s a simmering tension between them even at the start, a thread of dislike and disapproval. Everyone else is mildly exhausted by Alex’s relentlessly cynical analysis of everything. Everyone else is low-key bored by David’s seriousness and determination not to let any fun get out of hand. And everyone else is tickled by the mildly predatory and possessive possibility of a sexual thrill with Juliet – a thrill she uses in both a grindingly ordinary way with Alex and ultimately in a quest for survival with David.

When interviewing for a fourth flatmate, the three are shown to be loathsome, throwing in offensive questions while interviewing candidates, and making unfeasible requests mostly for the fun of humiliating strangers. These are not people with whom we should overly sympathise, the film seems to say.
But it’s when Juliet finds one candidate…’interesting’ that their world changes. Hugo, played with a minimalist sizzle by Keith Allen, is different to the parade of nobodies who want to share their flat. He’s unassuming, controlled, and unphased by them. He also, we understand, has more of a chance of becoming Juliet’s longer-term partner than either of the others, or any of the pseudo-boyfriends whose calls she never answers.

So when Hugo turns up dead in his room with a suitcase crammed with apparently untraceable cash, the normal course of their responses is deflected.

The normal thing to do would be to call for an ambulance and have him taken to a morgue. But then, there’s the money.

That’s one of the film’s chief turning points, but it’s also one that makes very little sense. By simply stashing the money in one of their rooms and calling the ambulance anyway, they could have been free and clear.

Instead, they decide to keep the money – and bury Hugo, having first cut off his hands and feet, and smashed out his teeth to avoid recognition by dental records.

As ya do.
There’s cleverness in John Hodge’s script to cover the lunatic diversion of their lives at this point. Each of them has a crucial part to play in the act. It’s Alex who – with a reporter’s knowledge of evidence – demands they cut off Hugo’s hands and feet, and smash in his teeth. He also acts as the prime, mouth-driven agitator for the deed. Juliet, working at the hospital, can easily dump the extremities on a trolley heading for incineration. And David…

Well, David is pushed beyond his normal limits when he draws the short straw and has to dismember the body.

He never entirely comes back across that Rubicon.

When it emerges that Hugo absconded with the money, and that a mob boss, Andy, played with almost Bob Dylan levels of detachment by Peter Mullan, is keen to get it back, the housemates are terrorised, but Andy’s plan does not go at all according to plan because he messes with the wrong accountant.

While Alex and Juliet are easily subdued, it is David, having crossed that bridge into the dark side of the accountant’s soul in the act of sawing off the feet of a dead housemate, who takes charge and saves the day – with staggering consequences. Most of us would see the difference between dismembering a corpse and killing the living, but it seems by that point to make very little difference to David.

With bodies piling up, David creates himself a kind of kingdom in the attic, with spyholes in the floor to keep on top of the actions of his housemates.
The impact first of the money, and then of what David does to secure the money, eats away at the housemates’ never entirely strong companionship, and a series of contingencies are put in place. Juliet books herself a flight to Rio without telling the others. Alex begins to write the story of their actions, so that in the event of his death they will come to light. And David, who has commandeered the money, packs a bag and makes to leave with it all.

Meanwhile, a burglary in a flat below them brings the police calling, and under the gimlet-eyed gaze of Detective Inspector McCall, played by Ken Stott, and Detective Constable Hodge, played by the film’s writer, John Hodge, stories start to unravel – especially when all three housemates deny ever having seen Hugo.

As David’s mental health unravels, he grows to crave power more and more. From being initially unable to bring himself to saw the feet off a corpse, once he’s done it, he begins to retreat to a position above the other two, living like a god on high in the attic, his spyholes allowing him to look down on the lesser mortals as they squabble. When he despatches the thugs who come looking for the money, he graduates from corpse-cutter to full-on murderer. And when – in a ghastly irony – Alex is sent to cover the discovery of the bodies in their shallow grave, we learn that far from resisting the task, at some point during the dismemberment of the last two bodies, David has gone significantly further than was necessary.

For all Ewan McGregor’s Alex is the voice of cynical self-interest in the film, there’s some cynicism in the writing too, because Juliet, in a power move, uses what might be thought of as her biological capital to get on the right side of David, seducing him to secure her position and changing the dynamic between the flatmates. The reasonable, transactional nature of this seduction is given expression by Alex, when he says “Oh don’t worry – I’d do exactly the same but I don’ think I’m his type.”
If the main thrust of the film is a kind of black morality comedy about the corrosive power of money, the ending is rushed and frenetic, a free-for-all, three-for-all, winner takes all fight in the kitchen, each of them using everything that comes to hand. We won’t spoil the ending for you, but it involves somebody skewered to the table with a knife, somebody dead on the floor…and somebody walking out alive and heading for an escape route.

It’s a tense whirligig of money, responsibility, sex, violence, and tension, and it’s so very determined to be cool that it almost succeeds. Danny Boyle’s debut has many of the elements that would go on to make Trainspotting a big hit – including a sped-up journey through Edinburgh (although most of the film was shot in Glasgow), and even a shocking ‘baby crawling loose’ scene, though in Shallow Grave, Boyle used a toy rather than the ‘actual’ baby that would be demanded by the novel of Trainspotting.

It’s a mostly-clear statement of directorial intent, with several elements that – viewed years on – could probably be improved. Eccleston’s accent is never entirely grounded, and he suffers on-screen compared to McGregor’s easily, if unpleasantly, charming character. The sudden frenzied ending feels a little forced. And perhaps because she says less, but fills the screen with a seemingly ageless knowledge, you’re always waiting for Juliet’s other shoe to drop, for her bombshell – and eventually, you definitely get it, even if by then you don’t entirely believe it.

If you’re watching anyone intensely though, it’s Christopher Eccleston on David’s journey from shy dull desperation to a kind of dark freedom and the empowerment that comes with having crossed a social line that most people don’t cross. Even his body language changes throughout the film, from diffident at the beginning to the prowl of a big cat towards the end.

Shallow Grave is still worth a re-watch today, especially when you know that the growing antipathy of the characters wasn’t particularly forced. Christopher Eccleston revealed in his autobiography, I Love The Bones Of You that...
“Before we filmed Shallow Grave, myself, Ewan McGregor and Kerry Fox lived in a flat together for a week. We rehearsed, read scenes, and got to know each other…all it did was give myself, Ewan and Kerry a week to realise we didn't like each other very much, and didn't get on.”
The anti-chemistry works between the characters though, the mounting pressure and the lengths to which they go to keep their secrets, the money, and their sense of what’s important to them is oppressive, and the film is a lot of great build-up, let down just slightly by what feels like a rushed ending. Still though, Peter Hodge and Danny Boyle manage to load the very ending with a full fistful of twists that redeem the frenzy, and reward you for following the find-the-lady game of money and bodies in a mid-90s tale of ordinary greed and extraordinary consequences.

Watch Shallow Grave today with a seven day free trial of BritBox.

Tony lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk

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