Shallow Grave (1995) dir. Danny Boyle writ. John Hodge cine. Brian Tufano edt. Masahiro Hirakubo music Simon Boswell (et. al.) star. Christopher Eccleston (David), Ewan McGregor (Alex), Kerry Fox (Juliette), Ken Stott (D.I. McColl), Keith Allen (Hugo), Colin McCredie, John Hodge


"I usually don't meet people unless I already know them"

The influence of that master of the black farce and the deviant move, John Orton, is quite noticeable in John Hodge's excellent script about three Edinburgh yuppies who share a funky apartment, er, flat, and are looking to share it with someone else. Enter Hugo, tall, dark and unshaven, a supposed "writer" and smooth operator. He certainly makes an impression on Juliette (Kerry Fox), the young female doctor in this sit-com trio from hell. Self-assured, witty, oblique and packing a white suitcase, Hugo passes his lodger interview easily and is soon installed in a blue room with an orange bed. Says the reserved David (Christopher Eccleston), "I don't usually meet people unless I already know them."

Just as Orton reengineered the standard stage comedy by speeding up response and movement, so too Boyle and Hodge with the sit-com. While Shallow Grave goes where Three's Company never dared, they nonetheless function on the standard comedy device of "the convenient misunderstanding" and the sexual tension intrinsic in unmarried men and women living together. It's a triangle, and Hugo the mysterious roommate is the sub-text.

Who really is Hugo? He pays his share of the rent in cash and quickly retires to his room with his white suitcase. The next morning the trio find him naked and dead on the bed after he fails to respond to their invitation to breakfast.* How did he die? Drugs? Alex (Ewan McGregor) immediately begins an aggressive search of the room and Hugo's possessions. David and Juliette are shocked by Alex's callous invasion of space but of course his actions are entirely within character -- Alex is a journalist. They are even more shocked when Alex opens the white suitcase, discovers that it's stuffed with money, and immediately suggests that they keep it....

The deviant moves just keep coming... if you found yourself in the dead of night in the woods beside a freshly dug grave drawing straws for the honor of cutting off the head, hands, and feet of a dead man, how would you respond? Would you sleep well thereafter? In a symmetrical exchange of role function and reversal of character, David takes over from Alex as the leader of the pack. If Fortune makes him the butcher, then the money should be his... all his.

David ascends rather than descends into madness. The suitcase (with the loot) is hidden in the attic above the flat, submerged in the water cistern that feeds the building. David makes the attic his domain like the Hunchback makes the Belfry of Notredam his. It took a shovel to dig the grave, a hacksaw to dismember the body... and a power-drill to ventilate the floor of the attic and admit spokes of light from the flat below. Ever see the Coen brothers' Blood Simple? Danny Boyle has. John Hodge has. But you must admit that this "lift" is used well here, is as seamless as the follies that flow in the flat below.

Convention has it that there's no honor among thieves. Strip mining the standard crime psychologies, Boyle/Hodge make Juliette the film noir manipulator, the woman who will stop at nothing if money can give her an early retirement on a warm beach in Rio. Amputated limbs are nothing new to her, so she has no problem dropping Hugo's severed head onto the incinerator detail at the hospital where she works... or seducing David while still talking love to Alex.


Two thugs kick in the door and brutalize Alex and Juliette. The editing and choreography here are superb -- rapid and ugly as if the assailants are Belfast paramilitaries or students of crime film. Yet while they move like professionals, they think like dolts, and are easily knocked off when they ascend the ladder into David's domain, the attic. Two more bodies... and it's back to the woods again.

In another ironic symmetry, Alex is sent by his editor to cover the discovery of the dismembered bodies in the woods beyond the city. Like the submerged suitcase in the cistern, Hugo's blue car is also submerged -- but in a flooded quarry. Of course it's found, just like the "shallow" graves of the trio's victims. Soon the newspaper is braying the chilling discoveries with a front page header, "Triple Corpse Horror".

Is the trio caught? Does Juliette get to Rio?

Danny Boyle's direction is superb. Rapid scene movement and montage compression with funk music make this film an extension of the contemporary rock video, although lessons have been learned from the history of dramatic film. For example, Shallow Grave starts and ends with the monologue of a dead man -- just like the drowned William Holden in Wilder's Sunset Boulevard. The visual unity is extremely interesting, almost like the 3 color printing typical of the old comic books. The dominant colors are pastels, tones that suggest youth and southern vitality, and act in dramatic counterpoint to the horror of the action in this Athens of the North.

noir solutions and a vortex of stabbery

In live theatre, the fourth wall refers to the invisible wall between the players and the audience. When the police visit the flat (ostensibly to enquire about a robbery in another flat) D.I. McColl says, "Four people are living here..." -- which Alex denies. Technically, Alex is telling the truth. Hugo is no longer living there. But with Hugo dead and gone the wall between the trio and reality is also gone. Says David, "I believe everyone needs friends... but what if one day you find you can't trust them, what then? What then?"

What then, indeed. Noir solutions and a vortex of stabbery, most likely.

© LR 2/2000

*If you have seen the recent Boyle/Hodge collaboration The Beach you will immediately notice the similarity in dramatic intent and directorial method here to the death of Daffy.


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