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Film review: Burke and Hare(15)

Rachel Winterbottom thinks the body snatchers are too genteel

Written by . Published on November 9th 2010.

Film review: Burke and Hare(15)

IN 19th Century Edinburgh, two Irish men murdered 17 people and sold their bodies for medical dissection. Blind children, elderly women and teenagers with learning difficulties were all smothered in the name of science. It’s clearly a tale best told through the means of comedy.

Everyone loves a bit of gallows humour, Ronnie Corbett is a visual delight, as always, and there’s something magical about Serkis and Hynes’ man and wife bashing out business proposals against the headboard mid-coitus.

Loosely based on true events, the setting is Edinburgh in 1828 and the study of anatomy is rife in the capital. Two surgeons, Dr Knox (Tom Wilkinson) and Dr Monroe (Tim Curry), from competing schools, are vying for royal funding but there’s been a lack of decent bodies to study since the volume of hangings decreased, and they’re forced to rely on grave-robbers and body-snatchers.

Following a crack-down by Edinburgh militia of grave-robbery, an unusual niche is created. The time is ripe for an entrepreneur to step in to supply the demand. In this case two; Williams Burke (Simon Pegg) and Hare (Andy Serkis) are two conmen who see this opportunity as simply the next step on from selling mouldy cheese. Following an initial stroke of luck when one of Hare’s lodgers dies, the pair sells the stiff to Dr Knox, who doesn’t care where it’s come from, and reap the monetary awards.

The only problem is that, aside from natural disaster and praying that lightening really does strike twice, their supply is drying up fast. It’s time to start making their own luck. After all, everybody has to die, the shrewd Hare reasons to an initially uncertain Burke. Life might be cheap but death doesn’t have to be.

Burke soon comes around when he falls for the feisty Ginny (Isla Fisher), who is looking for a willing benefactor to fund her all-woman production of Macbeth. The more cadavers he and Hare can pile up, the better the production values. Unfortunately, it isn’t long before the murderous duo’s antics attract unwanted attention and the Edinburgh militia start closing in.

This being a British black comedy, it’s a family-friendly tale of serial murderers. While still an unconscionable character, professional gurner Serkis (Gollum in Jackson’s Lord of the Rings) does what he’s good at and makes a murderer likeable. The real-life Hare is said to have bent a blind boy over his knee in order to snap his spine. Serkis’ Hare is more likely to bend the back of his accomplice-wife in a spirited act of rumpy-pumpy.

As Hare isn’t doing any soul-searching, Pegg’s Burke is left to add a touch of humanity to the tale. His wide-eyed innocence shtick works perfectly as he fauns after the calculating Ginny and plays the misguided partner in Hare’s business venture. Unfortunately, Pegg seems only truly on form when he’s had a hand in the script, which makes Burke and Hare closer to How to Lose Friends and Alienate People than the Cornetto trilogy when it comes to actually making you laugh.

With Jessica Hynes and Isla Fisher in the female leads there are very few distressed damsels in this film. Hynes, who unlike her Spaced co-star Pegg is becoming more beautiful with age, utilises her flair for naturalistic comedy to make Hare’s scheming wife, Lucky, likeably condemnable. With Scottish parentage, Fisher as the incorrigible Ginny gallantly attempts the Edinburgh burr - by deepening her voice and rolling her ‘rs’. Her character’s attempt to man the first all-woman Macbeth is a suitably bizarre subplot.

Director John Landis’s comedy credentials peaked in the 80s with classics like Coming to America and Three Amigos!, and the slapstick elements of Burke and Hare hark merrily back to his heyday. An obese victim falls foul of his own clogged arteries before the eponymous duo can even employ their weapons. A Wile E. Coyote-esque tree-felling plan goes inevitably awry. However, despite being the mind behind comedy gore-fest An American Werewolf in London, Landis’s Burke and Hare is sadly lacking in blood and guts. The real-life murderers smothered most of their victims to death, so perhaps we only have them to blame for the lack of innards on display. But some more guts would have been appreciated in the humour department too.

Crammed with British talent, there are still moments of comedy gold. Everyone loves a bit of gallows humour, Ronnie Corbett is a visual delight, as always, and there’s something magical about Serkis and Hynes’ man and wife bashing out business proposals against the headboard mid-coitus.

Still, there is just something too genteel about this British comedy. It’s trying for horror and comedy, and got stuck somewhere between the two. For a film about bodies being dissected its relatively bloodless, with the audience being subjected to one-too-many grainy photographs of the unfortunate cadavers, and the humour is gently benign, perhaps due to the film’s desire to make Pegg’s Burke a sympathetic character. Or maybe it’s because the last film the writers, Nick Moorcroft and Piers Ashworth, penned together was St Trinian’s 2.


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