Criterion // 1994 // 93 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Jim Thomas // July 4th, 2012
What's a little murder among friends?
Coming out of the Reagan decade, English cinema was in something of a rut; plots focused on British stiff upper-lip values and featured somewhat drab color palettes. Basically, everyone was trying to make their own Merchant-Ivory production. The industry was in desperate need of some new blood.
The adrenaline began to flow with the release of Danny Boyle's 1994 directorial debut, Shallow Grave, a film that blends a noirish plot with a dash of dark humor. The film was a hit at festivals, gaining the production team sufficient notice to get funding for their next project, Trainspotting.
Criterion now brings us Shallow Grave (Blu-ray), a high def treatment of this seminal picture in the new British film movement.
Three roommates share a flat in Edinburgh -- Dr. Juliet (Kerry Fox, A Village Affair); David (Christopher Eccleston, Doctor Who), an accountant; and Alex (Ewan McGregor, Velvet Goldmine), a journalist. They're looking for a fourth roommate, eventually settling on a mysterious guy named Hugo (Keith Allen, The Others).
Shortly after Hugo moves in, the trio is shocked to find him dead in his room from an overdose. They're even more shocked to discover that Hugo has -- well, had -- a suitcase full of cash. Realizing no one knows that Hugo is even living there, they decide to dispose of the body and keep the cash. Together, they bury their roommate in the titular shallow grave, removing his hands, feet, and head so if the body is discovered, it won't be identified.
Oh yeah, we ALL know where this is heading...
Juliet and Alex are still giddy with the rush of their unexpected windfall. However, David, high-strung under the best circumstances, develops a viciously paranoid streak -- which does nothing but get worse when two thugs turn up at the flat, clearly looking for the money and just as clearly willing to kill to get it.
But, as it turns out, there's a greater threat than a couple of drug dealers. Now they have to worry about each other.
In the commentary, producer Andrew Macdonald and writer John Hodge acknowledge the script never specified just how much money was in the suitcase. As Hodge says, it was enough money to trigger events, but the specific amount is immaterial. That comment tips you off to the real strength of Shallow Grave -- its characters. Fox, McGregor, and Eccleston are riveting. Even in the early scenes, you can see glimmers of the character traits that will drive the plot. Eccleston has the showiest role, with David going batshit crazy halfway through, but Fox is in many ways the glue that holds things together. No one will admit it, but both men are attracted to her, and consequently both tend to defer to her; done carefully, without any sex kittenish nonsense. In fact, the character development is done organically enough that it never feels forced, just a simple natural progression. And when all hell breaks loose -- as it does on several occasions -- it all feels terrifyingly real.
Beyond the performances, the other star of the film is director Danny Boyle, who infuses Shallow Grave with a style that evokes Hitchcock while retaining its own identity. The hyperkinetic opening sequence, with an undercranked camera zooming through the streets of Edinburgh, proclaims this will most assuredly NOT be a traditional British film. The spinning sequences looking up the staircase to the flat are borderline hypnotic, as are several tracking shots through the flat itself. Also, Boyle must have stayed up nights dreaming up new ways to make Eccleston look psychotic, 'cause damn...
Criterion makes sure we can appreciate Boyle's style. Shallow Grave is full of color; not dull muted color, but the bright vivid stuff of life. Whether it's the green of the forest, the paint in the flat...or the blood, the 1.85:1/1080p MPEG-4 AVC visuals -- a new high-def transfer supervised by director of photography Brian Tufano -- makes the everything pop. There's a wonderful tableaux with Hugo's body on the bed, partially covered by a red sheet. Reds often have a tendency towards blurring or fuzzing, but not here; the sharp contrast between the red of the sheet, the royal blue of the walls, and the white of the bottom sheet is remarkable. The DTS-HD 2.0 Master Audio track doesn't get a lot of attention in the dialogue-driven plot, but it rises to the occasion when called for.
Criterion provides Shallow Grave (Blu-ray) with a fine set of extras. We get a couple of vintage featurettes, as well as a trailer for Trainspotting that was included on the original VHS release of Shallow Grave. There's a commentary from Danny Boyle -- recorded for the 2009 British Blu-ray release -- offering a nice combination of technical and background information. Two new additions for this release. A 30-minute featurette that edits together interviews with Fox, Eccleston, and McGregor. It's fascinating, and really makes you wish they had gotten the cast together for a commentary. There's also the aforementioned new commentary from writer John Hodge and producer Andrew Macdonald. This is a little drier than Boyle's track, expanding to include discussion of the British film industry as a whole, and focusing on more occasionally mundane production matters. And of course the requisite Criterion booklet, this one featuring an essay from film critic Philip Kemp.
Trivia: Ewan McGregor and Christopher Eccleston were both unknowns at the time; it was the presence of Kerry Fox, who had garnered solid reviews in 1990's An Angel at My Table, that allowed the producers to secure funding. The film was shot for a million pounds, or roughly $2.5 million. The actors explain that money was so tight in several situations, they had exactly one take to get a shot right -- and they were often fairly complicated shots.
Okay, so the plot is a little on the flimsy side, and there are a number of narrative cheats used to artificially ratchet up the tension. Shallow Grave was intended to be a commentary on materialism, but Boyle cops to the fact that since so many people were interested in the flat those underlying themes were never fully realized.
This crux of this story has been seen time and time again, often with painful results (e.g. Ca$h), relying on contrivance and Dickensian coincidence, as well as the occasional massive plot hole. In that regard, Shallow Grave is no different, but it offsets its weaknesses with strong performances and a sense of style so strong it invigorated the entire British film industry.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 2.0 Master Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 93 Minutes
Release Year: 1994
MPAA Rating: Rated R