The bold, brave attitude of the 1980’s dried up in British cinema after the turn of the decade. The energy and vision behind sci-fi films like Brazil, The Long Good Friday, The Company of Wolves, and anything by Bruce Robinson, along with many others, was replaced with a desire to make bland period pieces and movies about stuffy folks. Beautiful and wonderfully acted maybe, but completely safe; it was like filmmakers suddenly lost their balls and didn’t want to work with challenging, engrossing material. It seems like a good bit – but not all, there are some exceptions – of the industry’s output revolved around being prim, proper and noble in the English countryside instead of addressing what a post-Thatcher society was or how it made people feel.
When Danny Boyle’s first feature, Shallow Grave graced the big screen almost two decades ago, it was a big hit and, more importantly, it started a change; at the time, it was the equivalent of hearing punk rock at the Grand Ole Opry. The three roommates’ distinct flaws – Alex (Ewan McGregor) is a crude journalist, David (Christopher Eccleston) is uptight and reserved, and Juliet (Kerry Fox) is a little too flirty with both men – are all amplified when a dead body and a suitcase full of money enter their lives. And with the entrance of wealth comes backstabbing, greed, and the use of violence, deception, and sex against one another. Three friends are suddenly three enemies, with Juliet playing both sides of the field, and David becoming a neurotic, violent hermit. Their love of money surpasses their love for each other, and cohesion turns to chaos.
John Hodge creates some fantastic character moments in the script and effectively showcasing the ever growing rift between the roomies, leaving the plot fairly basic and full of Hitchcockian devices – it definitely feels a little stale eighteen years later. Shallow Grave is more about the character study and in that department, it excels thanks to three phenomenal performances. Boyle’s sense of humor and style is easy to spot here, especially in the opening monologue and nighttime crawl through the woods (complete with electronica score), but he wouldn’t really define himself until Trainspotting a few years later.
Shallow Grave’s new 1080p transfer, supervised by director of photography Brian Tufano, is of the high quality we’ve come to expect from Criterion. There’s a lot of detail and clarity, especially in the outdoor scenes, with a noticeable boost in browns and reds. There’s a really nice color contrast in the film; it starts out bright and saturated looking in the colorful, textured apartment and once things start going downhill, it gets more muted and drab looking. There’s a few instances of artefacting, but it’s very sporadic and not a big issue overall. The DTS-HD 2.0 soundtrack is crisp sounding, with clear dialogue. The limitations of the production leave the film without much oomph aside from the electronica bits scattered throughout, which sound louder than anything else and are the highlight of the track. The audio isn’t bad, it’s just not anything special.
Commentary – The first of two tracks, ported over from a 2009 release, features director Danny Boyle discussing how he got involved with the film, how his style and techniques evolved over the course of the shoot, and even some fond memories of the production. There are some random tidbits and stories in there too, such as when he lived with the three main actors before the shoot in order to rehearse and develop chemistry between them. The second track, recorded for the Criterion release, has screenwriter John Hodge and producer Andrew Macdonald chatting about the state of British cinema at the time of Shallow Grave’s release, and how they think the film affected it. There’s a really nice contrast between the tracks – one emphasizing British films and the other just the film in question – without much overlap, so a back-to-back pairing isn’t entirely out of the question.
Interviews (28:55) – Newly produced by Criterion, this interview compilation features actors Kerry Fox, Christopher Eccleston, and Ewan McGregor chatting about their recollections of the production, as well as how it affected their careers. Like the commentary tracks, there’s quite a bit about how much it affected the British film industry at the time of its release.
Video Diary (8:58) – Shot by Kevin and Andrew Macdonald, the video diary tracks the duo as they try to secure funding at the 1992 Edinburgh Film Festival. They try passing the script to Robbie Coltrane and Michael Winner, among others, and even chat with a cigar chomping Samuel Fuller a few times.
Digging Your Own Grave (29:48) – A half-hour making-of documentary from 1994 shot by Kevin Macdonald, which starts with some overlap from the Video Diary featurette. Casting, set design and production are covered, mostly from Boyle and his producers’ perspectives, leading up to a market screening at Cannes.
Trainspotting Teaser (1:14) – Already in production on Trainspotting when Shallow Grave was hitting video in the UK, Boyle and Co. decided to include this teaser to give everyone a little taste of what would be, and still is, the director’s best film.