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25th Anniversary: Danny Boyle's "Shallow Grave"

by Anna

Twenty-five years, a new British filmmaker made a dark splash at Cannes. Danny Boyle’s directorial debut Shallow Grave, which would become a significant sleeper success in 1995, opens with flatmates David (Christopher Eccleston), Juliet (Kerry Fox) and Alex (Ewan McGregor) looking for a new boarder (and subsequently trolling the prospective candidates). They settle on Hugo (Keith Allen) but he dies from a drug overdose within hours of moving in. Then the trio  find a suitcase full of money under Hugo’s bed, and that’s where the plot (and the meaning behind the film’s title) really kicks off.

Roughly a decade of award-winning films from the likes of Stephen Frears and David Attenborough, Boyle came and turned British cinema as a whole on its ear...

That’s not to say audiences were getting tired of movies from the former, far from it. It’s just – as is the case with many things in life – a change of pace is just what an audience craves. It’s fine for the first few years but once the ten-year mark hits, that’s when the next-big name becomes passé. (This is, also, unfortunately the case with many actresses.) Anyway, the point is that with the arrival of Boyle and his film, British cinema started to focus on darker subject matter (Mike Leigh’s Naked also arrived in the mid 90s.)

There was a certain gamble in making this film. The budgetary restrictions (said budget being only £1 million with most of it going towards building the flat’s set) were so severe, props had to be auctioned off in order to get the money needed for film stock. And not only was this Boyle’s directing debut, but it was also the first screenplay by John Hodge (who makes a cameo in the film as a police inspector) and the first starring role for Ewan McGregor (he had made his film debut that same year in Bill Forsyth’s Being Human). Still, filming went without a hitch and wrapped in thirty days.

Boyle also had the right idea in having his three leads live together for several weeks before filming began to have their interactions in the film feel more natural. And in doing so, the moments of high tension throughout the film feel even more taut. Boy, is that finale a whopper. (Speaking of which, does anyone know if Eccleston, Fox and/or McGregor ever collaborated on another project together?)

If you’re familiar enough with Boyle’s later films, it’s fun to keep an eye out when watching Shallow Grave for the hallmarks you'll often find in them. Unlikeable protagonists? Check. Large amount of money used as a MacGuffin? Check. The opening shot is one from the middle of the film? Check. Bright, colorful landscapes? Check. Effective use of music editing? Check.

Shallow Grave served as a launching pad for many of the people involved. Boyle, McGregor, Hodge, and producer Andrew Macdonald would follow up their success two years later with Trainspotting. All three leads would go on to become regular fixtures in film and television, with Ewan McGregor ascending to major international fame by the end of the 1990s. Both leading men would dabble in sci-fi early in the next decade (McGregor with the Star Wars prequels, Eccleston with his one-season tenure on Doctor Who) while Fox stirred up controversy with sexually explicit scenes with Mark Rylance in her Silver Bear-winning role in Intimacy (2000). But most of all Shallow Grave was a sensational calling card for a filmmaker who would become even more successful over the next quarter century. While Shallow Grave tends to get overshadowed by Boyle’s later films like 28 Days Later and his Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire, it’s very hard to deny its worth as one of the best directorial debuts ever made.


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Reader Comments (7)

I can't believe it's been 25 years! I remember finding this on the shelf of my local video store while in college. Sooo good! I recently picked up the criterion version, but have not revisited it yet. Thanks for the reminder/prompting :)

May 18, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterTravis

I saw this movie 3 times in the theater. I loved it then, and I love it now. Thanks for this.

May 18, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterCharlieG

The penultimate scene (the money reveal) is brilliant in it's execution; the camera movement, the music, the set design, the way it completely came out of nowhere. I also love how light and fun the movie starts only to get real dark at the end.

May 18, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterMDA

I've only seen bits of it but I really want to see it as it's Danny Boyle (though I am so not looking forward to Yesterday as it looks like fucking shit).

May 18, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterthevoid99

Ewan McGregor's filmography is so long and impressive that we run the risk of forgetting some jewels of his first steps on big screen. Like Shallow Grave. After that came Trainspotting, Emma, Velvet Goldmine, Little Voice, Star Wars, Moulin Rouge!, Black Hawk Down, Big Fish, Miss Potter, Cassandra's Dream, The Ghost Writer, Beginners, The Impossible, August: Osage County. Amazing.

May 19, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterSamuel

Samuel -- he really is one of the most underappreciated marvels.

Charlie G -- i loved this one, too. Haven't seen it since the 90s though so this may prompt a revisit.

May 20, 2019 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Agreed Samuel. I was just thinking that if Rocketman came out 15-20 years ago, he would have been perfect (albeit unrealistically handsome) for the role. His version of Your Song!

May 20, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterSuzanne

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