Burke and Hare ***
As inspirations for comedies go, it would probably hard to find one more macabre than that of Burke and Hare, the new comedy from John Landis, the director of such films as Animal House, The Blues Brothers and Trading Places who has been largely out of the picture since directing 1998’s Blues Brothers 2000, which stars Simon Pegg and Andy Serkis as the titular duo.
That inspiration is in fact (which brings me to my very point) the very real serial murders which were perpetrated in Edinburgh from November 1827 to October 1828. Known as the Burke and Hare murders (or alternatively the West Port murders), the killings were attributed to Irish immigrants William Burke and William Hare, who sold the corpses of their 17 victims as cadavers to Edinburgh’s medical institutions for dissection at a time when medical cadavers were in very short supply through legal channels. Eventually Burke and Hare were caught but, due to underwhelming evidence against them, Hare was offered immunity from prosecution if he testified against Burke. This led to Burke being executed by hanging. Not surprisingly, there have already been several horror movies based on the murders in the form of 1945 Robert Wise directed film The Bodysnatcher based on the book by Robert Louis Stevenson which itself was based on the murders, 1948’s The Greed of William Hart which was originally titled Crimes of Burke and Hare but was renamed and redubbed with alternative characters and dialogue after the British Board of Film Classification deemed its topic too disturbing and insisted that references to Burke and Hare be excised, 1972’s simply titled Burke & Hare and 1985’s The Doctor and the Devils which is a retelling of the Burke and Hare story with the names of the characters altered. Additionally, Burke and Hare also appeared as characters in the 1971 film Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde and the 23 November 1964 episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour entitled The McGregor Affair. It’s all very well making a horror movie out of such a concept, though, but how on earth do you take a tale so grotesque and make it into a comedy? By taking considerable liberties with the truth for one thing. As the start of 2010’s Burke and Hare bluntly states “This is a true story except for the parts that are not”.
It’s 1828 and Edinburgh is the centre of medical learning. Irishmen William Burke (Simon Pegg) and William Hare (Andy Serkis) are two ordinary men struggling to earn an honest living and their schemes for making money never seem to work out for them. Everything changes, however, on the day that Hare’s wife Lucky (Jessica Hynes) informs them that one of their tenants has died. Suddenly, Burke and Hare realise that they are onto something big and decide to cash-in on the highly profitable business of providing bodies for medical dissection, selling to the reputable Dr. Knox (Tom Wilkinson) who is finding himself unable to get hold of cadavers due to the actions of his rival Dr. Monroe (Tim Curry). It isn’t long before Burke and Hare are on the road to financial success and Burke even falls for the lovely Ginny (Isla Fisher), an ‘actress’ who is attempting to mount an all female play if only she can find the money to do so. Burke agrees to finance the play so that he can get close to her but soon finds that he may have to do some horrific things in order to keep the money flowing in. This is because, although medical students always need bodies to practice on, they are not exactly easy to get hold of. And when the blundering pair find there is a corpse shortage, they turn first to grave-robbing and then to murder in order to fulfil demand. At first everything seems to going well for the duo but they soon find themselves in over their heads when they have to deal with both gangsters in the form of Danny McTavish (David Hayman) and Fergus (David Schofield) and worse still the law in the form of Captain McLintock (Ronnie Corbett) and the Edinburgh Militia.
Given how grim the true story upon which Burke and Hare is based is, it is actually rather surprising that macabre is one thing this film is not. Despite the murder aspect, this is no horror comedy, with there not being a single horror element to be found anywhere, and it is also isn’t very dark, almost seeming afraid to take thing to anywhere remotely dark. Additionally, the film also isn’t especially funny, a major failing for a comedy such as this, particularly one that has so clearly turned its back on its inherent darker aspects. This isn’t to say that the film isn’t funny but there is nothing memorable here, director John Landis falling back too much on dead body slapstick and scenes of a member of the Edinburgh Militia repeatedly fainting at the sight of some of their grisly discoveries (which we largely don’t see, I might add, apart from a few slightly gross scenes which seemingly aim for gross out style humour). The murder/attempted murder scenes often prove quite comic and the script does offer a few zingers/comebacks from characters but with humour that tends to the obvious this is a comedy of the very unsophisticated variety, certainly enough to amuse but not enough to make you really laugh till your sides split (pun most definitely intended). The film also proves disjointed in other aspects as well, portraying an authentic look and feel of early 1880s Edinburgh and with the cast doing very convincing accents all round but the dialogue not sounding very period authentic and an impressive ensemble of name British actors and some non British non actors – including, in addition to those aforementioned, Stephen Merchant, Bill Bailey, Christopher Lee, Jenny Agutter, Hugh Bonneville, Paul Whitehouse, Steve Speirs, Reece Shearsmith, Ray Harryhausen and even William Burke himself (his skeleton that is) – is rendered largely redundant by the fact that most of them appear only in barely seen cameo appearances and will go by unnoticed by anyone who isn’t well aware of who they are and that they are in the film beforehand. Certainly, few of them are giving anything of actual note or relevance to do. Additionally, the script throws in references to numerous historical figures and seemingly attempts to incorporate as many historical developments as possible, something which just seems pointless considering that much of it amounts to throw away references that serve the plot in no way, with the exception of photography which plays a crucial part in the storyline. If there is one thing in the film that does satisfy at least, however, it is the central performances with Simon Pegg and Andy Serkis making for an amusing duo, so much so that we continue to like them even as they butcher countless innocent. Also, Isla Fisher is truly lovable on screen and it is hard not to smile every time veteran comedian Ronnie Corbett quite literally marches into the scene. It’s just unfortunate that the material they are given to work with is so lacking. As a cinematic comeback for John Landis, this film is less than triumphant and a case of an identity crisis – is it going for light-hearted humour or full on black comedy, it comes across somewhere right in the middle – means that Burke and Hare proves to be an amusing but forgettable piece of British comedy cinema.
Review by Robert Mann BA (Hons)
© BRWC 2010.
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