Directed by John Landis.
Starring Simon Pegg, Andy Serkis, Isla Fisher, Jessica Hynes, Tom Wilkinson, Bill Bailey, Georgia King, Tim Curry and Christopher Lee.
A black comedy about two 19th century grave robbers who discover a lucrative business providing cadavers for an Edinburgh medical school.
Edinburgh, 1828. Public hangings are a ripe source of entertainment for the good people of the old city. They gather in their thousands for suspense, for grisly fascination, and for those effortlessly droll last words.
Burke and Hare isn’t stupid, and this opening scene is no happy accident. John Landis knows full well of the British public’s taste for the macabre, then and now. As if you needed proof, there’s a rhyme as old as the infamous West Port murders of Edinburgh:
Up the close and down the stair, In the house with Burke and Hare. Burke's the butcher, Hare's the thief And Knox the man who buys the beef.Crucially, we find that we actually like Burke (Simon Pegg) and Hare (Andy Serkis) quite early on. Times are hard on these two poor immigrants. They long to rise from the gutters and make it, on their own, to the very top of society. Currently residing at the top are rival physicians Dr Knox (Tom Wilkinson) and Dr Monroe (Tim Curry), battling it out to win the King’s favour and a considerable research grant.
Introduced to this cruel and violent world (by an affable Bill Bailey no less), we realise how much Burke and Hare are men of their times. They stumble upon an opportunity and seize upon it with slippery, uncertain hands. Put simply, Burke and Hare works because our ‘heroes’ are so monumentally stupid. Their murder methods are lazy, ill-concieved, and often stalled, either by Burke’s suddent attacks of conscience or their ham-fisted attempts at violence.
Besides being in the murdering business, Burke and Hare make a terrific double act; Pegg’s bumbling, amiable manner belies the carnal appetites bubbling under the surface, driving him on past his scruples and doubts to do terrible things to his neighbours. Serkis, in the finest tradition of Peter Lorre, is perfectly cast as a man always looking as if he’s gleefully contemplating some horrific act. A thankless role by any standard, Serkis nevertheless brings mischievous charm and a strangely comic malice to Hare and his many crimes against the supporting cast.
Of all the notable co-stars and pleasantly surprising cameos that make up this cast, Jessica Hynes’ energetic turn as Lucky Hare is the stand-out performance. Formerly a surly, futureless alcholic, Lucky re-discovers herself as a nymphomaniac entrepeneur when she works out what her husband is up to, and likes it. Wearing her borrowed accent better than most, Hynes effortlessly steals every scene, quite at home in the pokey, winding alleys of old Edinburgh.
This is no mean feat. Burke and Hare is stuffed with odd, incredibly dark humour, giving us shocking laughs that avoid the usual easy, scatological fare. Unforeseen hilarity is lent to sound effects; spinal cracks, the gentle trickle of spurting blood, even the laboured crunch of a hacksaw on bone provokes guilty belly laughs.
Quibbles arise with the dubious Scottish accents on offer; most are bearable to the Sassenach ear, but native Scots be warned – wincing may occur. Isla Fisher is perhaps the worst offender, mercilessly trilling her ‘r’s but thankfully stopping short of a “hoots mon” or an “och aye”.
Fisher’s character in general upsets the credibility of Burke and Hare’s enterprise. As Ginny, the apple of Burke’s eye, she is supposedly a savvy street girl, using him to fund her theatrical ambitions. And yet...it all flies over her pretty little head. A woman who grew up in the backstreets of a rough, dangerous city, who can organise a production at the drop of a hat, is somehow blissfully unaware of the serial killings sweeping the city of Edinburgh? No dice, Landis.
‘Accents’ and ‘actresses’ (stuck firmly in quotes) aside, Burke and Hare does the legend credit. It tells a gruesome tale with comic relish, but never softens the blow for our benefit. We know the real Burke and Hare were murderers. They killed in cold blood for money, and there is no justification for them. This version ultimately sticks to the wise principle of its Ealing predecessor The Ladykillers: if you can’t make your criminals harmless, for pity’s sake, make them feckless.
Simon Moore is a budding screenwriter, passionate about films both current and classic. He has a strong comedy leaning with an inexplicable affection for 80s montages and movies that you can’t quite work out on the first viewing.
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