Coaxing a successful comedy out of a dark historical drama is tricky even for the most seasoned filmmaker. Unfortunately, John Landis’ comedy/thriller Burke and Hare is one of those that misses the mark.
Set it the scientific boom of 1820s Edinburgh, Burke and Hare tells the tale of two infamous serial murderers, William Burke (Simon Pegg) and William Hare (Andy Serkis). The two men have emigrated from Ireland to make a better living in Scotland, and, once they’ve dug their share of ditches and failed at numerous occupations, find themselves desperate for cash. Quite innocently, it seems, they stumble on a lucrative trade when they discover they can sell bodies of the deceased to medical colleges for use in anatomy studies.
This much is true. And, to be fair, the film’s opening line admits, “This is a true story… except for the parts that are not.”
Burke and Hare’s primary customer is the distinguished Dr. Robert Knox (Tom Wilkinson) of the Edinburgh Medical College. With the Age of Enlightenment is in full swing, Dr. Knox finds himself in a fierce competition with the city’s other lead anatomist, Dr. Monro (Tim Curry), to get first dibs on executed cadavers for his classroom. As the demand starts to exceed the supply, Knox resorts to paying grave-robbers and other criminals for “fresh” bodies. In step Burke and Hare, who in their greed soon turn from “finding” bodies, to “accidental” killings, to outright murders.
Burke is the reluctant hero, uncomfortable with the killings, but all-too-aware of the financial trouble they are in if they stop their madcap activities. His guilt abates some as he falls in love with a beautiful young actress, Ginny (Isla Fisher), and agrees to finance her all-female production of Hamlet with his unsavory earnings.
Hare is the opposite, a cheerfully plotting, devious soul who can only concentrate on where to find more bodies and make more money. Once his wife, Lucky (Jessica Hynes), finds out, he has a surprisingly enthusiastic and crafty accomplice to add to their crew. The more money they make, the more Hare and Lucky are attracted to each other, culminating in several funny and demented love scenes.
The setting for the film is quite good and fun to watch. Obvious attention was paid to location, period dress and the general atmosphere of filthy streets, dingy pubs, and many colorful characters. The film’s music is largely Irish and Scottish influenced, using violins, whistles and bagpipes to keep the mood merry.
Since Burke and Hare is more a comedy than anything, the plot deviates from historical fact most of the time, and this is forgivable. What is harder to stomach is how the film focuses mostly on these contrived situations, which are much less spellbinding than the macabre truth.
Amidst the offbeat humor there are little sparks of genius, but they are not as frequent as one might hope. The best laugh-out-loud moments are the slapstick ones that go into the realms of the ridiculous, usually delivered by the brilliant physical comedians Jessica Hynes and Ronnie Corbett, who plays police Captain Tam McLintoch. Bill Bailey as the Hangman also stands out with his dry quips at the film’s opening and close.
What does not work in this film is the chemistry between actors in general. With such a stunning array of talent on hand, including cameos from some of Britain’s best, including Christopher Lee and Stephen Merchant, it’s a crime that so many of the lines fall flat and obvious, unfunny and forgettable. The most obvious example of this disjointedness is sadly Andy Serkis as Hare—he simply does not carry the charisma or the dimension this role requires, coming off annoying at best and grating at worst (not a slight on Serkis, but rather on the crafting of the film itself). Even Pegg, who can be a hilarious performer, seems whiney and almost bored throughout the film.
At this point, one might wonder why Nick Frost was not cast as Hare rather than Serkis. Though not a very original coupling, it at least there would have been guaranteed entertainment value in yet another reunion between Frost, Pegg, and Hynes (together the stars of cult classic TV show Spaced, as well as Shaun of the Dead)
Screenwriters Piers Ashworth and Nick Moorcroft (St. Trinian’s II: The Legend of Fritton’s Gold) don’t seem to know where they’re going with this story, so they stuff the spaces with unnecessary complications and rubbish. The added subplots of Burke’s romance with Ginny and Knox’s ambitions to map the human body are only distractions as viewers grapple with which story is really the story.
Particularly disappointing is the hand of the director, John Landis (Animal House, The Blues Brothers), in all this. Landis, who so subtly brought the humor/horror genre to life in An American Werewolf in London, seems to have lost his touch in Burke and Hare, a clumsy echo of the genius of his past films. Even if Burke and Hare had been a clear-cut black period comedy, such as Sweeney Todd, perhaps it could have retained some integrity… but there is no point speculating what this film could have been. Overall, Burke and Hare is harmless and entertaining in parts, but will ultimately leave viewers with more questions than laughs.