Burke and Hare (2010)
Directed by: John Landis | 91 minutes | comedy, crime | Actors: Simon Pegg, Isla Fisher, Christopher Lee, Tim Curry, Andy Serkis, Tom Wilkinson, Stephen Merchant, Hugh Bonneville, Jenny Agutter, Jessica Hynes, Bill Bailey, Georgia King, David Schofield, Pollyanna McIntosh, Steve Speirs, David Hayman, Allan Corduner, Reece Shearsmith, Ronnie Corbett, John Woodvine, Michael Smiley, Robert Stone, Christian Brassington, Gino Picciano, Duncan Duff, Pete Noakes, Ciaron Kelly, Johnny Lynch, George Potts, Nick Moorcroft, Paul Davis, Chris Mansfield, Shelley Longworth Ken Matthews, Adam Smith, Christopher Obi, Tom Urie, Paul Whitehouse, Ray Harryhausen, Costas-Gavras, Michael Winner
In Britain, almost everyone knows the legend of William Burke and William Hare, two Irish immigrants who committed 17 murders in Edinburgh, Scotland, between November 1827 and October 31, 1828. Burke and Hare sold their victims’ bodies to Dr. Robert Knox, an anatomy professor who paid big money for them. It was the only way for him to obtain enough cadavers for the students of the University of Edinburgh to dissect. Previously, the bodies of executed criminals were used for these purposes, but since the early 1800s, the number of executions had declined sharply. Burke and Hare, two paupers who were willing to shed some blood to earn some pocket money, eagerly set out for Knox. The legend of the murderous pair has often inspired novels, plays and films. John Landis made his comeback as a film director in 2010, after an absence of more than a decade, with the crime comedy ‘Burke and Hare’.
We are warned in advance: ‘the events in this film are true, except for the moments that are not’. Simon Pegg and Andy Serkis take on the role of Burke and Hare, the illustrious duo that haunts the streets of Edinburgh. Tom Wilkinson plays Doctor Robert Knox, who is in a fierce competition with Professor Monroe (Tim Curry). They both want to buy off the corpses of the city executioner (Bill Bailey), but because Monroe pays more money, Knox always falls behind. When the longtime tenant (Christopher Lee) of Hare’s manipulative wife Lucky (Jessica Hynes) dies, Burke and Hare are left with his body. By chance, they discover that Dr. Knox is willing to pay a lot of money to take over that body from them. The profit they make stimulates the two to continue this illegal trade. Hare is roused by Lucky and Burke falls under the spell of the beautiful Ginny (Isla Fisher), a genteel lady who hopes to realize her dream – to stage the first all-female production of ‘MacBeth’. Since the bodies are not up for grabs and they desperately need the money, Burke and Hare decide to give Iron Hein a hand.
The events from ‘Burke and Hare’ are often far from historically accurate, but we are drawn to that in advance. The murders, for example, were actually a lot more gruesome and bloody than we get to see here. John Landis is mainly concerned with making his audience laugh. He succeeds quite well, but that is mainly due to his protagonists Pegg and Serkis, who clearly take great pleasure in portraying the legendary murderous duo. In the supporting roles we see a variety of British comedians, with Ronnie Corbett, Stephen Merchant and Paul Whitehouse, among others, in addition to the aforementioned actors. Also film greats such as special effects king Ray Harryhausen and directors Michael Winner and Costas-Gavras trot for a minimal contribution. The fact that everyone was so eager to participate in the film is an absolute plea for ‘Burke and Hare’. The enthusiasm of the actors ensures that this film is pleasant to watch, even if the screenplay (by Piers Ashworth and Nick Moorcroft, the duo behind the lukewarm reception ‘St. Trinians’, 2006) is only mediocre. Especially the completely unnecessary romantic subplot around Ginny stands in the way of the film. Much more interesting is the relationship between the mild Burke and the cold-blooded Hare, but little is done about it.
The same can actually be said about the film as a whole: the starting point offers sufficient starting points, but too little is done with it. As a result, ‘Burke and Hare’ as a whole is a bit cowardly. There are some jokes in the film, but the hilarity is not there. There is also drama in it, but it never gets really compelling. It’s a shame that an impressive cast like this had to deal with such lackluster material. It is therefore thanks to the actors – and the authentic-looking settings of the time-honoured Ealing Studios – that ‘Burke and Hare’ still manages to hold its own as an entertaining crime comedy. But the feeling gnaws that there could have been more. Glad John Landis is back on the movie front, but please let him work with better screenwriters next time.