Shallow Grave is 30, and Edinburgh renting is still a nightmare

Shallow Grave is back in cinemas this month for its 30th anniversary. Looking back at this dazzling landmark in Scottish cinema, we have many thoughts, most of them concerned with the nightmare that is renting a flat in Edinburgh

Feature by Emilie Roberts | 07 May 2024
  • Shallow Grave

You know the scene well: it’s July, that sweet spot post-students leaving, pre-new students arriving, pre-Fringe even, and you’re on Rightmove. And Gumtree. And Zoopla. And who the hell is naming these websites?! The flat search is on. It starts off optimistic. You’re looking for something light-filled, airy… maybe the New Town? At a certain point, you start to lower your standards and eventually, you get to a place where rooming with three complete psychos seems more and more attractive.

Principally this is what Danny Boyle’s film Shallow Grave is really about: how bloody hard it is to find a flat in Edinburgh. And bearing in mind this was 1994! Plus, Ewan McGregor is one of the psychos and you know, you’d forgive a lot of flatmate red flags for Ewan in that green jumper. 

Rewatching Boyle’s debut and McGregor’s second sexiest role (the first is Trainspotting and no, we will not be taking questions at this time) is a whirlwind of good fun. Within the first ten minutes alone one has many and varying thoughts, such as: their flat is in Stockbridge, you would truly forgive a lot of crazy for a flat that size in Stockbridge. Did they have the Sunday market there in 1994? I don’t know; God, these jumpers are great. Why does every 90s film have incredible jumpers? Were jumpers just better back then? Will the new UNIQLO on Princes Street have jumpers that can hold a candle to a good 90s jumper? Probably not. Hey, look, they’re playing squash. Whatever happened to squash? It truly seemed to feature in every piece of media in the mid-90s… and other such inanities. This is what people mean when they say they like a film that makes them think – no one has ever said those thoughts need to be profound.

McGregor plays Alex, a journalist who seems to work two days a week maximum, alongside Christopher Ecclestone’s David, an uppity accountant, and Kerry Fox’s Juliet, a doctor who can’t decide whether she’s a mad English posho or a mad Kiwi posho. The accents are truly all over the place here but you just don’t care when you’re having this much fun. They’re seeking a flatmate to join their aforementioned massive Stockbridge flat and in the search, they decide to have a bit of fun and toy with the prospectives. This toying includes riding a bike around inside, asking what the interviewee would do if one of the flatmates was the Antichrist and taking bizarre pictures with them. Honestly, these flat hunters should have copped on they were mental just by the decor. It’s so sparse! There’s about three pieces of furniture in the whole gaff! Run!

They eventually decide on a writer called Hugo, who winds up dead the next morning with a big suitcase full of cash in his room. Naturally, the three decide to dismember the body and keep the money. What could go wrong? Spoiler: lots.

Boyle does the absolute right thing here, keeping the main action to just the trio of flatmates and their descent into madness. He knows no one really cares about a police procedural and instead delves into the psyches of three friends unravelling in the face of a Bad Thing and the allure of lots and lots of money. Ecclestone is the standout here as we watch him go from buttoned-up scaredy cat to insane person, driven there by The Tell Tale Heart-esque manifestations of guilt. A big shout out to the sound design and score: it’s full of creaking, bumping, thudding weirdness and music that can only be described as Goosebumps-y.

There’s a bit of a B-plot that concerns the origin of all the money, which is under-utilised, but the whole film is snappy enough that you don’t really mind. The moments where Boyle does go full-throttle horror/thriller are great fun and deliciously camp, full of blood splattering and genuine suspense. It’s hard to believe this is the same chap who gave us 127 Hours and Yesterday, but in fairness, there’s arm sawing in the former and the latter makes you want to saw off your own arms (and ears), so it’s much of a muchness. What Boyle does prove though is that even campy genre films can look good and boy does Shallow Grave look good. It’s full of primary coloured Almodóvar-esque off-kilter goodness, with some zany camera moves and bold framing choices. It’s also hilarious to boot. Happy 30th, Shallow Grave, they truly don’t make ‘em like you anymore.

Shallow Grave is rereleased 10 May by Park Circus; certificate 15

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