Quick Take: Criterion naturally does Danny Boyle's debut film justice on Blu-ray.
It was sometime in my late teens that I first saw Danny Boyle’s directorial debut, Shallow Grave. I was still riding high on the Trainspotting wave, so when one of my friends that worked at a local video rental store let me know that they had another film from the same director, I had to see it immediately. What I discovered was a much more intimate film than Trainspotting, but with the same dark humor, wit and visual flair. Now, some 14 years later, The Criterion Collection is finally giving Shallow Grave the release and love it deserves.
Shallow Grave opens with three flat mates, Juliet (Kerry Fox), David (Christopher Eccleston) and Alex (Ewan McGregor) attempting to find a fourth. After a hilarious montage of the trio belittling any and all would-be roommates, they finally decide on Hugo (Keith Allen), a man noticeably older than the other three who claims to be working on a book.
It’s not long after moving in that Hugo is found dead in his bed. Even more surprising to the flat mates is a giant suitcase full of money that Hugo has in his room. After much debate over what to do about Hugo and the money, the three decide to keep the money and remove Hugo bit by bit.
As often happens once a large sum of someone else’s money comes into play, the trio begin to become paranoid of the cops and suspicious of each other. With a backstabbing awaiting each friend at every turn, the tension builds into an incredibly affecting final act that shows just how much greed can change a person while at the same time putting some unsettling violence on full display with nary a flinch.
Shallow Grave is an interesting and captivating little film. By its own narrative nature, it would seem rather run of the mill. With all of the talented hands involved in its creation, the final product ends up being anything but.
John Hodge’s incredible script deserves much of that credit. It’s been 17 years since the film’s release, yet the dialogue in Shallow Grave feels just as witty and spot-on as it did upon my first viewing all those many years ago.
This was Danny Boyle’s first time as a feature-length director, and he knocks it out of the park. It always impresses me to see director’s first films and see just how much of their style they already had. Boyle’s sense of editing, pacing and love of dark humor would grow to further heights with his follow-up, Trainspotting, but it’s abundantly clear here with Shallow Grave that he was already a man of many talents that have in recent years earned him Oscar gold as well as led him to create quite a diverse body of work.
Along with Hodge’s words and Boyle’s vast abilities, it is the raw talent of the cast that really brings the film together. Every character is, on paper, rather unlikable and, as the film goes on, capable of more and more despicable things. It’s the actors that make these detestable characters not only watchable, but somehow make you care about them, despite their characters many fault. Fox and Eccleston turn in great performances and give their characters a genuine sense of life, but it is McGregor that steals the show. This also being his first film, it’s instantly obvious that he would go on to have quite a career.
Portraying Alex, a character with Cobain-esque hair that seems to lack a moral center, McGregor still manages to be just as charming and effecting as he continues to be in his now long and celebrated career.
The Criterion Collection notoriously provides some of the most pristine and authentic HD transfers available on their Blu-ray releases. With Shallow Grave, Criterion continues that trend to tremendous effect. The films source looks down right immaculate, sporting little to no damage or age. A bit of grain runs throughout, but doesn’t detract and, in all honesty, adds a sense of depth to the overall picture. Although the film has an almost subdued palette throughout, colors truly pop. Crystal clear clarity is evident in nearly every scene, from textures of clothes to the streaking in the flat’s paint. This is an exceptional transfer and another high mark for Criterion’s continuous successes.
As for the audio, Shallow Grave feature a DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track which is nice, but not completely taken advantage of. This isn’t a fault on Criterion’s side, but rather the source material itself. Shallow Grave is a rather quiet film with sound consisting primarily of dialogue, which comes through clearly and is centrally focused. The sound mix rarely gets much to do, save for scenes with heavy electronic music track which, compared to the rest of the films quiet nature, come off very pronounced, but not overbearing. It’s a subtle track that really benefits the overall mood of the film.
Beyond the Feature
Along with the excellent high-def Presentation, Criterion, as they are quite known for, have filled out this release of Shallow Grave with quite a few extra features, all of which make for an even more complete package.
Audio Commentary with Director Danny Boyle – Recorded in 2009, Boyle’s commentary is exactly the sort of entertaining, yet in-depth analysis that I always hope for with a director’s commentary. Here, Boyle covers the entire production process, from casting to production, while sprinkling in trivia tidbits here and there. He also discusses the films low budget and how to best work around such financial restrictions, making this commentary worthwhile for not just fans of the film, but for those wanting to become filmmakers themselves.
Audio Commentary with Screenwriter John Hodge and Producer Andrew Macdonald – This is a brand new commentary recorded specifically for Criterion’s release of the film. Here, Hodge and Macdonald not only provide more insight into the film itself, but also its origins and the influences that led Hodge to write the script. The pair discusses British cinema and how Shallow Grave was a sort of satire of the type of film being released at that time. Some info from the Boyle commentary gets repeated here, but there’s more than enough here to warrant a listen or two.
Digging Your Own Grave (HD, 30 min) – This is an incredibly well put together documentary, directed by Kevin Macdonald, that removes all the fluff from a typical making of and reveals much of the true nature and feelings of making a film; the good and the bad. Filled with behind the scenes footage and a cavalcade of anecdotes on the making of the film, this is a must watch for all fans of the film and filmmaking in general.
Interviews (HD, 29 min) – This feature includes brand new interviews with Ewan McGregor, Christopher Eccleston and Kerry Fox. Each actor recounts how they came to be involved with the film and what it was like working with Danny Boyle. They all have their fair share of great stories from that time in their lives and you can tell that they all have a fondness for the film and the work that they did within it.
Video Diary (HD, 9 min) – This is a charming little feature filmed in 1992 by Andrew and Kevin Macdonald at the Edinburgh Film Festival. The pair interviews a number of cinematic celebrities (Sam Fuller, Robbie Coltrane) and seek their advice on how to get Shallow Grave from script to the screen.
Trailer (HD, 3 min) – Original theatrical trailer for Shallow Grave.
Trainspotting Teaser (HD, 2 min) – This teaser for Trainspotting’s theatrical premiere was originally included on first UK home video release of Shallow Grave.
This release also contains an illustrated booklet with an essay by critic Phillip Kemp.
While it might lack the pop and urgency of Trainspotting, Shallow Grave is still a wonderful film full of wonderful performances and cutting dark humor. Even for his first feature, Boyle already had a strong sense of the visual style he’d soon perfect. This Blu-ray release features a wonderful HD transfer, a strong audio presentation and a wealth of wonderful supplemental material that round this out as a must have release.
– Matt Hardeman
Shop for Shallow Grave: Criterion Collection on Blu-ray for a discounted price at Amazon.com (June 12, 2012 release date).