A play on the screen

I think of Shallow Grave as a film I know, but on reflection I think I saw it once, on TV, within a couple of years of its original release. It’s Danny Boyles’s first feature, Ewan McGregor’s cinematic debut, and an early milestone in the careers of Christopher Eccleston and Kerry Fox. It caused a bit of a stir at the time—a time at which English-language cinema was still very much dominated by the Hollywood machine—and did very well at the British box office. Boyle and McGregor went on to make Trainspotting off the back of Shallow Grave’s success, which catapulted both to global fame.

So, a smart, witty, fast-paced black crime-comedy. That’s certainly this movie’s reputation, and having seen some of Boyle’s later work, that’s the kind of thing I was expecting. That’s more or less what I got when I watched it recently with Spouse and Spawn, as part of our lockdown cinematic Odyssey. However, it’s not quite the film I remember. Boyle’s background was in directing theatre, although he’d been working in TV for some years by 1994, and what Shallow Grave felt like to me, was a smart, witty, fast-paced black crime-comedy stage play.

This was a low-budget production supported by Film 4, so it’s quite understandable that it’s not big on special effects or elaborate action sequence, and that there are few scenes that couldn’t easily be realised on stage, but the overall structure of the piece could quite readily be re-jigged to make a theatrical staging practical—and its scenes just feel like the scenes in a play. It doesn’t really take advantage of the specific narrative affordances of its medium. Being far more familiar with Trainspotting, which is shot and edited as a hip essay in the language of cinema, I expected the earlier film to look more like the work of a cinéaste auteur.

This stagey feeling wasn’t just structural, either: Boyle also directed his cast to perform in a very theatrical manner. There are a lot of rapid-fire, witty lines in John Hodge’s script, and the delivery is far from wooden, but it is decidedly mannered: comparing it to Trainspotting again (which was released only two years later), it feels like the work a different director. The later film is acted with the improvisatory naturalism elicited by someone like Martin Scorsese (whose approach to shooting and editing is clearly also an influence), but in Shallow Grave McGregor delivers his lines as though he wants to be certain the back row can hear them. There’s no sign of the sure touch and swaggering self-confidence of the later film.

Boyle had clearly seen some movies. The image that I had retained the most clearly, of Eccleston squatting dementedly in the loft as light shoots up all around him through the spy-holes he’s drilled, is a clear visual reference to Joel and Ethan Coen’s first feature Blood Simple. The editing is certainly not pedestrian, and cuts between scenes are paced effectively to build tension. The ensemble performances have chemistry, and they are entertaining. But where a director like Quentin Tarantino or Rian Johnson very clear spent years thinking about how they would construct a movie before anyone gave them the opportunity, Boyle looks here like he’s not exactly making it up as he goes along, but certainly learning on the job. The film’s a lot of fun, but you’d never have guessed what was just around the corner.

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