Shallow Grave Review

The Film

In the case of Shallow Grave, three is most definitely the magic number. Three acts, three actors, three-shots, three graves and three film-makers. Over the following 15 years, the project has increased its reputation as a blue-print for making a low budget British film and the seeming failure of others to follow the holy trinity of its virtues of great script, great performances, and great production leaves the film standing alone in terms of quality.
Personally, I am not really sure that the director has made a better film since his debut. Shallow Grave is a perfect tale of an anti-heroic trio who bully potential flatmates and cock a snoop at everything other than material things. The three professions of the leads seem deliberately chosen to suggest bourgeois protagonists and the writer John Hodge even makes Ewan McGregor's character, possibly the most loathsome of the three, a Rangers supporting journalist(which I believe in Hodge's world is about as bad as you can get). So the accountant, the doctor, and the journalist inherit the ill-gotten gains of their suicidal flatmate and try to hang onto the money despite the thugs on their tail, the police following them, and, finally, their own open domestic warfare.

Largely located within the world of the bourgeois' well-appointed flat, we meet the three as they sneer at potential flatmates. Their close knit incestuous friendship allows them to believe they can get away with stealing the loot and their respective careers inform their efforts at covering their tracks. Yet when it comes down to it, the three are only in it for themselves and as the accountant flips his lid, his once girlfriend starts to debate whether she can trick him or McGregor the journalist more easily. Pleasantry, convention and friendship fall away, and bloodlust and greed take over in a superb macabre ending.
When the film was made it was Kerry Fox who was the star and guaranteed the finance from Film Four, and it was Christopher Ecclestone and Ewan McGregor who were relative newbies to the silver screen. The latter two have far more interesting roles as the accountant who goes postal and the journalist who plays his friends better than they may think. All three are quite loathsome despite being played with great skill and conviction and the humanity in the film is decidedly unpleasant overall. What keeps you watching is the dramatic pull of seeing these people debase themselves and try to trick others in order to take the prize alone.

Around the three, there is Peter Mullan as a homicidal heavy, Ken Stott as a most disconcerting detective, and Keith Allen as the urbane and mostly dead new flatmate. Solid actors fill the cast, Brian Tufano shoots the action with enough interesting tricks of the light, atmosphere and camera to allow the flat-bound action to remain fresh, and the key sequences of the film are well enough produced to ensure their dramatic impact is maximised within the £1 million budget.
Still, the real test of the film is that of time and the passing of some 15 years since it was made. I am happy to report that the humour, the violence, the music and the novel twists are all in fine fettle, and nothing feels old. In fact, what is most surprising is how the movie feels like a piece of cinema rather than a TV film such as Boyle, crew and cast had cut their teeth on. The scale and visual impact, down to set design and photography, are most definitely cinematic, and this is underlined in the wonderful opening with the camera zooming around the streets accompanied by Leftfield's music.

The partnership of producer Andrew MacDonald, director Boyle, and writer John Hodge went on to Trainspotting, which Matt reviewed here earlier, before Hodge was replaced by Alex Garland. The films that followed Hodge's departure were nowhere near as good, and I feel, despite all the trinities I mention above, that it was Hodge's contribution that allowed the other two amigos to achieve so much. For all its fine acting, production, and film-making, the real star of Shallow Grave is the script and no British film since has been so fortunate in this department.

Transfer and Sound

After some very poor treatments on DVD, this blu-ray is a welcome improvement. The appearance of this transfer is very natural with good edges, light grain and a warm but not overheated treatment of colour. Contrast is very good in the night time sequences, see the grave silhouette capture and the attic shot above, and whilst a higher bit-rate may have been better this 15.3GB progressive transfer is pretty good.
This blu-ray comes with a new HD audio option, a stereo LPCM track. Personally, it's nice not to have the usual created 5.1 track as de-rigeur here and this stereo track more than met my needs. Dialogue is very clear, music has much more impact than with the standard def discs and the quality far exceeds any previous releases.

Discs and Special Features

This is a region B disc, and a single layer one. The disc is two thirds full with a couple of interviews, Kevin McDonald's making of documentary and the director commentary. Boyle is, as always, an easy talker in the commentary as he describes auditioning for this job and trying to restrain his enthusiasm when he met McDonald and Hodge. He applauds the cast and Brian Tufano, explains the financing and admits what a great time he had making the film. Throughout he talks about what lessons others could learn from his first movie and my review above is largely in agreement with him on the primacy of the script, the quality of actor and from his own perspective he stresses how important it is to stick to your guns.

Kevin McDonald's 30 minute documentary starts with explaining how he was cut out of the film's making as we join brother Andrew agonising over keeping to budget and keeping the film's insurers away from changing the project. There's a couple of moments of interesting heterodoxy as Kerry Fox moans about her role and the tale of the sacked assistant director gets some airing. It all finishes with a good premiere in Cannes.

One of those short Film Four ident pieces represents the interview with Boyle which is short and a bit flimsy really. More substantial is an interview between Mark Kermode and McGregor from a retrospective on the actors career in 2002 where he acts according to type by talking about film nudity, then celebrates the team of Hodge, Boyle and McDonald and asks where risk-taking has gone in the British film industry.

This is a satisfying set of extras.


In my opinion, this was the last great British film and the people who made it have deservedly gone on to Oscar recognition and serious stardom. This Film Four release is a good transfer with a reasonable set of special features, and with a lack of other HD versions it is the right choice for the serious British film fan.

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Category Blu-Ray Review

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