Movie Review #34 / 250 : ‘SHALLOW GRAVE’

Ok, a hypothetical question for you, if you will. Say you’re letting out a room to a shifty lodger. A few days into the tenancy, and he’s dead – leaving behind some Class A medication and a briefcase chock full of cash. Do you, A) Inform the police, and leave the money alone, B), inform the police, and pocket the money, or C), hack off the corpse’s hands and feet, remove any sign of identification (including disfigurement, where necessary), bury it in the back of beyond, and then pocket the cash?

Of course, dear reader, you would pick A). As any truly sane and law-fearing denizen would. Option C, however, is the choice of three flatmates who find their new housemate a stiff, and with a bumload of capital in a box. Shallow Grave is a British, character-driven story that focuses on the psychological journeying of the trio (Kerry Fox, Ewan McGregor and Christopher Ecclestone) as they each come to terms with their dark deed, and of course, as they struggle to maintain innocence in what becomes fairly grim psychological slapstick.

It’s a great idea for a plot, isn’t it? There’s a whole host of avenues for tension to scale up here, and mostly, it succeeds. Eccleston, as meek accountant David, shines best as he struggles to survive mentally after disposing of the lodger (Keith Allen, no less), and the focus switches to him as the remaining duo struggle to keep him above water, as it were. Things really pick up in the last third as the jig starts to look as if it’s up, and by the end, it’s every flatmate for themselves.

That said, good god, there’s a lot of problems. For a character-driven film, you need rounded, deep, and attractive personalities – characters you can invest in, if you like. Shallow Grave struggles with this. A lot. The first fifteen minutes of the film focus on the trio looking for a new lodger, and while the sequences try to be quirky and poetic, they only end up making the heroes (if you like) appear smug and hierarchical. It’s kind of the same problems Scott Pilgrim has. While I guess we’re not supposed to fully like or understand these people, closing them off to such an extent early on, and giving barely any backstory or development (beyond dancing into the land of the loopy) later on, the suspense and tension is lost massively – as we’re not connected to the characters. In short, I didn’t care about these people. I wanted them to get caught, or killed, or both. I’m not sure that was director Danny Boyle’s point. The acting is fine – far above it, main and supporting – but the characters are hard to connect to, and thus much of the film’s intentions are sadly lost.

There’s quite a few throwaway moments here and there too which aren’t particularly monopolised upon – Ken Stott’s potentially monstrous policeman would’ve been nice to see more of – and a relationship that begins between two of the characters late on seems shoehorned and distracting. But, getting away from the meat of it – I think this needs at least another half an hour, maybe fifteen minutes of runtime – simply to let the characters breathe, and maybe to give a few of the side plots a bit more focus. Otherwise, nice plot, great acting, but fairly hollow in its execution.

PROS: Good ideas. Good tension in places. Good acting.

CONS: Poor characterisation. Too short(!). Intensely smug in places.

OVERALL : 5/10
Bit disappointed with this, to be honest. I can see why it’s called a ‘cult classic’, but it’s hardly a ‘classic’ in its own right. Unlike Network, though, there’s enough here to justify the ‘cult’ part.

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