Movie review: Shallow Grave directed by Danny Boyle


Three young, well-educated urbanites, Juliet Miller (Kerry Fox), Alex Law (Ewan McGregor) and David Stevens (Christopher Eccleston) , are sharing a big flat right in the middle of one of Edinburgh’s historical quarters. It is a prime location but also an expensive one. After a while, with one spare bedroom available, they start to look for a fourth tenant in order to ease their financial strain. Of course their demands are rather high. The new tenant has to be somebody on their own level: intelligent, witty, more or less presentable, sufficiently well-off to afford his or her share.

The offer is tempting so there are a lot of candidates. Three friends decide to organize a kind of audition, having a lot of fun at the expense of the potential flat-mates. Finally Juliet meets Hugo, a man who is, allegedly, a writer returning to Scotland after years of living abroad. Hugo, being a bit older than the rest of hopefuls, knows how to impress a young woman; after a while Juliet and her two flat mates pronounce him suave, wealthy and overall intelligent enough to deserve their spare bedroom and their priceless company.  Especially that Hugo promptly pays his monthly rent share in cash.

Unfortunately the very next day after moving in Hugo dies in his sleep, most probably from an overdose of recreational drugs. When Juliet, Alex and David lose patience and break into his room they find his cold, naked body lying on the bed and a small suitcase full of money right underneath. Now the real story begins: after a short period of dithering the three friends decide to keep the money and dispose of the ripe cadaver. Still none of them is exactly aware what price they’ll have to pay.

My impressions:

Once again the movie presents a story similar to the plot of No Country For Old Men, reviewed by me not so long ago –  some people accidentally find a lot of cash which, allegedly, doesn’t belong to anybody. Of course such a stupid assumption leads to all kinds of grief because let’s face it, there is no such a thing as an ownerless suitcase full of money. Still the movie was hardly about the joys and sorrows of hiding too much dough you acquired by chance. It is a movie about friendship.

At the beginning Juliet, Alex and David were such a nice bunch of yuppie friends. They were, respectively, a doctor, a journalist and an accountant, living side by side in glorious harmony, sharing a beautiful, old flat. Occasional barbs and antics of Alex just emphasized how well they were getting on with each other. These three, intelligent people with a great future before them liked each other well enough to form a kind of small commune, almost like a surrogate family. What could go wrong? A lot.

Their bond and loyalty was tested not only by that devilish suitcase (how to share it? Why to share it at all?) but also by ruthless thugs who soon find their way to the flat, looking for their property. Practically from the very beginning it was clear that all three friends would be, at some point, in mortal danger; still it seemed that only David the accountant, the least imaginative, the most stolid and down-to-earth creature of all, had enough common sense to predict serious troubles (and hide in the loft like a bat or a rat). Juliet and Alex were like two kids – completely dazed by their sudden ‘good’ fortune and all the colourful toys they could afford, too happy and careless to think about the possible negative consequences of their decisions. Especially Alex often displayed childish, immature traits of his character (like your typical young male ;p). He was the one who loved torturing the potential flat mates with the silliest, craziest questions like: ‘imagine I am the Devil incarnate, what your reaction would be?’ and then make fun of them. He was the one who made fun of serious David constantly.  In one scene, right after buying with Juliet a top-of-the-range camcorder for 500 pounds (now looking pathetically obsolete), he pranced around, wearing full make-up and a black, sequined dress with spaghetti straps to match ( and let me add that young Evan McGregor, cast in that role, with longish hair and a fresh face, was looking like your average gay man’s proverbial wet dream). Alex was also the one who skillfully wheedled and bullied others into doing the most unpleasant tasks while he just wanted to reap the rewards of their efforts and smile. He was handsome, young and clever, fully aware of his potential; he thought he always deserved the best.

Juliet I considered to be the weakest of the three. Perhaps not exactly bad but definitely the weakest. Although, as a doctor, she was supposed to keep a level head in all circumstances, she was usually the first to crumble and whine. Then she showed no loyalty whatsoever towards her companions, trying to play one against the other and then she decided to leave them both ruthlessly in the lurch as soon as she realized their aims became unattainable (I am being vague on purpose here in order not to spoil anybody although it is an old movie so you can easily find plenty of details online if you are interested). She changed sides more than once, proving she had no spine and was thinking only about herself. She also lacked imagination to a staggering degree, not being able to forecast even one step ahead (mind you in some situations it was really easy to do so). I did expect something better from an intelligent woman who, allegedly, had to take difficult decisions and think about potential risks and consequences every day at work. In fact I had an impression that in crucial moments both men would manage far better without Juliet breathing down their neck. However, she was hardly a femme fatale, rather a woman fatally stupid.

Finally it seems the friendship was the biggest victim of the three friends’ predicament. At the end of the movie it became clear that, no matter who managed to keep the money, they would be left definitely poorer than they had been at the beginning. The most precious things in life, like love, friendship, the sense of belonging and loyalty, cannot be bought. Somehow all three friends, despite their cleverness and intelligence, failed to understand that simple truth. As a result they also failed the test they were supposed to pass with flying colours. Deep down they were just a bunch of immature, selfish creatures, not better than the rest of the ordinary population they used to despise and ridicule so much.

Final verdict:

Shallow Grave was the most commercially successful British film of 1995 and I have to admit it didn’t lose its appeal with years. It is an intelligent thriller I recommend wholeheartedly, full of twisted humour and unexpected turns of the plot. I rewatched it with pleasure – something I can say about few films. It aged well although the electronic devices it features now would be placed in a museum or in a landfill site.

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2 Responses to Movie review: Shallow Grave directed by Danny Boyle

  1. heidenkind says:

    Good things definitely do not arrive in the form of suitcases full of money. 🙂 This must not have been a big release in the US because I don’t remember it at all.

  2. Oh yes, happiness has nothing to do with a suitcase full of money, nothing whatsoever. Even people who’ve won a lottery don’t necessarily turn into fullfilled, happy individuals, sad but true.

    I believe this film was more popular in Europe. You should watch it though – I’m sure it can be borrowed or/and watched online or found on your VoD platform.

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