Shallow Grave: Danny Boyle’s Striking Directing Debut

For most American audiences, British films of the last decade fall into two different categories. One the one hand, there are the richly textured literary films of James Ivory and Ismail Merchant, often based on the works of E.M. Forster, like the Oscar-nominated comedy, A Room With A View, and more recently Howards End, which won Emma Thompson an Oscar.

Then there are the critical films of left-wing directors, such as Mike Leigh (Life Is Sweet, Naked) and Ken Loach (Riff-Raff, Ladybird, Ladybird) that focus on Britain’s social system by exposing the horrible life of the working class, a direct result of Thatcherism. Lacking the elegant visual style and literary cache of the Merchant-Ivory school, these socially-conscious movies advocate gritty realism and are often cast with non-professional actors.

A new movie by novice and gifted British filmmaker, Danny Boyle, Shallow Grave is an exhilarating crime psychological thriller that belongs to neither school. The movie is more influenced by the offbeat, innovative sensibility of such talented American independent directors as Tarantino and the Coen brothers.

Shallow Grave is quite unlike any other British film you have seen. Judging by its reception, it’s breaking house records in London and doing extremely well (in limited release) in the U.S. Like its American counterparts, it’s a low-budget film (just $1.5 million) whose appeal is based on an unusually taut screenplay and strong characterizations.

There’s been buzz about the film ever since it played at Cannes last year, and recently at the Sundance Film Festival. Filmmaker Danny Boyle, who’s quickly acquiring the reputation as “the British Tarantino,” is already getting a deluge of offers to direct big-budget Hollywood films.

Though not easy to pigeonhole, Shallow Grave can be described as a stylish, fast-paced, hard-edged movie. From its opening sequence, when the camera veers and swerves at a breathless pace around the streets of Edinburgh, viewers know that they’re in for an unusual roller-coaster ride.

The three protagonists are yuppies who share an attractive apartment in Edinburgh. As the story begins, they’re holding auditions for a fourth occupant of their large place. Most applicants are rejected, as they seem to lack the trio’s brittle, eccentric humor. Finally, the three friends agree on a man, but shortly after he moves in, his body is found dead in his room, with a huge case of money beneath his bed.

After a serious discussion, they decide to keep the money–and dispose his body (hence the title). I’m not spoiling the fun, for all this info is disclosed in the first segment of the movie, which then changes into a morality tale.

Indeed, ultimately, the film is a parable about the effects of greed on friendship. It shrewdly presents a moral dilemma to the audience: What would you do if you found a huge amount of money that nobody knows about its existence. Would you call the police? Keep it for yourself? Share it with your friends?

“I suppose Shallow Grave is a cruel film, but then life can be cruel and cold,” says Boyle. The timing of the film’s release is most relevant, for greed is a topic that has recently occupied the British press. But greed and corruption are not peculiar to British society–they have universal meanings. And the fact that the three friends are young professionals (journalist, accountant and doctor)–and bright–will certainly appeal to young audiences.

Film critics who rave about Shallow Grave proudly point out how it brings a new “American-style” energy to British filmmaking. Comparisons are even made with Hitchcock, whose films continue to serve as models for skillfully designed, thoughtfully executed stories. Shallow Grave isn’t just an accomplished film; it’s genuinely scary and always intriguing (the coalitions among the friends keep shifting). The movie is also effective as a black comedy, boasting some funny moments–and wicked wit.

An atypical British film, Shallow Grave is neither displaying the handsome production values of the “Masterpiece Theatre” kind, nor burdened with heavy messages about the British class structure and plight of its underclass. Boyle says he deliberately distanced his work from British films in which the characters are portrayed as victims: “Shallow Grave is not about class or people being crushed by forces they can’t control.” “There are no victims in the story,” he explains, “Everyone takes responsibility for their decisions, which people do in real life anyway.” Indeed, audiences are also asked to take responsibility while watching the movie.

Exhibiting a striking directorial debut by Boyle, with an astonishing cinematic command, Shallow Grave may prove to be the British hit movie of year.

Boyle is a major talent to watch.