[A version of this article was originally posted on November 12th 2010. It is being republished ahead of the movie’s US release tomorrow]
Burke & Hare is based on one of Scotland’s most infamous historical murder sprees, committed by two opportunist Irish immigrants who got rich selling the corpses for medical study. It’s a terrific story with long-lasting consequences both in Scottish law and language (want to know what ‘burking’ means?) and replete with opportunities for comedy of the blackest variety, so no surprise that John Landis chose it as his comeback project to the director’s chair.
He has backed himself up by a sterling cast: Simon Pegg and Andy Serkis take the lead roles, backed up by Isla Fisher, Tom Wilkinson and the unfailingly excellent Tim Curry, who has also been away from the big screen for far too long. Produced under the banner of the resurgent Ealing Studios, who have the historical pedigree of exactly this brand of dark farce, all the pieces were in place for a fantastic historical romp.
Despite the warning which opens the film, the overused “this is based on a true story, except for the parts that aren’t” gag, the script stays unexpectedly true to history. The problem is that while you may leave the film feeling as though you’ve had a bit of an education, you won’t feel like a great deal of fun has been had along the way. The historical truth is the most interesting part of the story by far, underpinned with unobtrusive insights into the attitudes of the Edinburgh academic world at the time, which seems happy to allow even the most grievous crimes to go unpunished as long as the reputation of the city’s world famous medical colleges continues to grow. The duel between Tom Wilkinson’s Dr. Knox and the foot-obsessed Dr. Monroe, a role that wastes the great skills of Mr. Tim Curry, both using every means at their disposal to gain the upper hand in a bid to claim Royal patronage for their work, is the true conflict around which the story is spun and probably its most engaging thread.
The actual Burke and Hare murders occupy surprisingly little of the running time and are heavily sanitised – far from the affable duo as portrayed by the engaging Pegg and Serkis, the real pair were about as diabolical as any serial murderers have ever been. This seems a crippling misjudgment of what makes the story appealing: while the strangeness of the situation is perfect fodder for guilty laughs, playing the comedy so broadly blunts its sharpest edge. Considering the relative success of the film’s social focus, having each murder accompanied by a line one-liner or tired sight gag (chasing a barrel down a hill – really?!) feels inappropriately pantomime.
More slyly cynical humour would have made the film less mainstream, but kept the tone consistent than its current division between the pantomime villainy of street-level thuggery and dry sneeriness of the upper-caste academic world. An argument could be made that these differences simply emphasize the social divisions in society at the time, which is a fair point on an intellectual level but doesn’t make the film any more satisfying to watch. Burke and Hare may not live in the same social strata as their benefactor Dr. Knox, but it shouldn’t feel like they belong to two different films as well.
Some narrative streamlining wouldn’t have gone amiss either: Dr. Knox’s bid for his work to win the King’s approval and Burke and Hare’s escalating murderousness to satisfy his increasing demand for cadavers are the only two strands of the story which are fully developed and brought to a satisfying conclusion. Bringing in a local mafioso to blackmail the pair into paying protection money gives David Schofield the chance to provide some hammy fun, but the subplot is brought to as abrupt a stop as its beginning without conveying any great purpose to the story. Burke’s infatuation with Isla Fisher’s aspiring actress Ginny is just as superfluous, but his funding of her production of Macbeth takes up vast swathes of time and doesn’t provide a single moment of interest.
A wealth of one-note cameos might have allowed Landis to associate a handful of extra famous names with his film, but none are given more than a minute’s screentime at best: Christopher Lee gets a short Grandpa Simpson-esque monologue that goes nowhere, while former film producer (now most famous for a cheesy UK insurance advert) Michael Winner meets an audience-pleasing demise. The likes of Ray Harryhausen and Stephen Merchant barely muster two seconds between them, with the latter given a single reaction shot. Paul Whitehouse, formerly of Johnny Depp’s favourite comedy sketch show The Fast Show, at least gets one of the film’s very few laughs as one of Burke and Hare’s intended victims. The less said about the punchline to Knox’s assistant ‘Charles’ the better, except that it greatly undermines the film’s historical credibility. It’s not completely impossible that the person ‘Charles’ turns out to be was in the city at the time (although to my knowledge he would have left very shortly before), but he’s portrayed in total opposition to historical record and all for the purpose of a lazy, embarrassingly unfunny gag.
Burke & Hare epitomises the kind of lazy rubbish that the British film industry seemed intent on churning out last year (a trend that thankfully seems to have mercifully been halted with Attack The Block), desperately scrabbling for mass market appeal but perpetually coming off as second-rate, laughter-deficient imitations of better films. Even with a terrific cast and historical material to work with, it fails to muster up so much as a smidgen of dark wit or cynical intelligence, time and time again digging up the kinds of overplayed gags which feel even less fresh than any of the movie’s many corpses.