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Film Review: Burke & Hare

Burke & Hare (2010; Directed by John Landis)

There could be a great, dark-comic, socially and historically resonant genre film to be drawn out of the 1828 murder spree carried out in Edinburgh, Scotland by Irish immigrants William Burke and William Hare, who sold the bodies of their victims to a prominent local physician for use in his popular anatomy lectures before finally being caught. John Landis’ broad, nigh-on vaudevillian take on this bizarre, unsettling episode in Scottish history is certainly not it. A rich tapestry of crime, poverty, science, and capitalist greed, the tale of Burke and Hare could entertain and amuse the macabre-minded while also carrying trenchant commentary on the nasty hidden nature of an “Enlightened” society. Burke & Hare lightly touches on all of these elements, but never grasps onto any of them with the teeth of satire. It’s a superficial concoction, its comedy painfully unsubtle and prone to mugging, and not nearly as funny or subversively shocking as believes itself to be.

This is rather unfortunate, as the slightly-rusty Landis (12 years out of the feature-directing game) has a very much rough-and-ready cast at his disposal. Burke and Hare are played by Simon Pegg and Andy Serkis, respectively, both screen performers of considerable ability and charm that comes through even in haphazard material of this sort. As very loosely-adapted versions of the historical murderers, Pegg and Serkis represent an inversion of the popularly-conceived images of the duo. In real life, Hare was little more than a common thug who, along with his wife (here played by Pegg’s Spaced collaborator Jessica Hynes), fingered the (apparently) more intelligent Burke as the mastermind of the killings, for which the latter hung while the former was granted immunity to punishment before being chased into obscurity by a series of angry mobs (the Scottish are experts at angry mobbing).

Burke & Hare characterizes Serkis’ Hare as the smooth-talking schemer who drives the anatomy murders as a lucrative underworld business, with Pegg as the more decent and morally doubtful partner who takes the fall (and the swing) out of a sense of uprightness and, as this is not a very imaginatively-scripted film, out of love. While Hare vacillates between icy hostility and ribald intercourse with his accomplice of a wife, Burke finds himself moon-eyed over a fetching actress/prostitute named Ginny (Isla Fisher). He finances her dream theatrical project, an all-female production of Macbeth, in an effort to win her affections and companionship in bed, thus indirectly inculcating her in their killing spree to provide anatomy-lecture corpses to Dr. Robert Knox (Tom Wilkinson).

Pegg wins your begrudging sympathy with the barest effort, while Serkis uses the incredible facial expressivity that even pushed through a computer-animated filter as Gollum, King Kong, and Caesar the ape for mostly mud-splattered mugging. Fisher is the real treat, tapping into deep cinematic veins of classic screwball comedy to recite Scots-accented Bard snatches and pursue her loopy (and entirely too progressive) staging of the Scottish Play like a 19th-century stargazer Orson Welles. She’s fully at home in the milieu of Landis’ over-the-top, jokey tone in a way no other actor in the film is, with the possible exception of Tim Curry as Knox’s foot-obsessed eminent physician rival.

But that tone is a consistent problem. Telegraphed gags land with the thud of a dead weight. Landis’ gallows humour has spent so much time in the grave that it’s gone distinctly wormy. References that might have come across as sly and knowing in a less indulgently broad script (this one was penned by Piers Ashworth and Nick Moorcroft) slip by half-noticed due to their lack of attention-grabbing tactics. Thus, a nod to the dedicated mutt and Edinburgh icon Greyfriars Bobby standing patient guard at his dead master’s grave is lost in slapstick antics by the city militia (evidently only three men strong), while guest spots by Wordsworth and Coleridge (and Charles Darwin, for that matter) are frittered away by weak and obvious punchlines. There are a panoply of cameos of variant wisdom, too, including Stephen Merchant pulling faces as a Holyrood Palace footman, Christopher Lee ranting as a near-death Napoleonic Wars veteran, and stop-motion monster master Ray Harryhausen as a doctor.

More unforgivable than any amount of silliness or any number of awkward guest appearances, however, is how Burke & Hare misses a golden thematic opportunity to say something about how the murders reflected something innate about the time and place of the text. A sort-of narrator (and also a hangman, played by another Pegg fave, Bill Bailey) sneers at the idea of Edinburgh of the 1820s being “Enlightened”, and there are some overworked attempts on Landis’ part to gesture towards the fundamental irony of medical science relying on grave robbery and even murder to advance its knowledge base (and, on both sides of the partnership, to make a pretty penny at it). But it’s all completely rote, and evokes nothing beyond a brief chuckle. This is a film of brief chuckles, at its very best.

Landis takes advantage of the gothic stone lanes and vertiginous wynds of Edinburgh’s Old Town and its moody environs to craft a couple of predictable old-fashioned genre suspense sequences, but is not much interested in this fascinating period city beyond its role as a horror-movie-ready setting. Burke & Hare is not an illuminating and diverting walking tour of a rich and complicated corner of human civilization (and the lack thereof), it’s an often frantic and only fleetingly sophisticated ghost tour for wheezing tourists. Perhaps my hope for more than that is misplaced, but there’s enough talent percolating in this dark-comic historical diorama to encourage such an expectation. Virtually any hopeful expectations are disappointed by Burke & Hare, however.

Categories: Film, History, Reviews
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