Burke and Hare

Burke and Hare

Director: John Landis
Starring: Simon Pegg, Andy Serkis, Isla Fisher, Tom Wilkinson and Tim Curry.
Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Runtime: 91 mins. Reviewed in Nov 2011
| JustWatch |
Rating notes: Comedic violence, gore, sex scenes and coarse language

For two such disreputable characters, grave robbers, Burke and Hare, they have appeared in quite a number of films. Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi were their equivalents in the 1945, The Body Snatcher, based on a Robert Louis Stevenson story. Donald Pleasence and George Rose were in the Flesh and the Fiends (1960). Their real names were used in 1972, Burke and Hare with Derren Nesbitt and Glynn Edwards. They were fictionalised again in 1985 in The Doctor and the Devils (with Jonathan Pryce and Stephen Rea). Back they are to their real names in 2010. And they have popped up in supporting roles in other films.

The 1972 version created the background of Edinburgh society in 1827 when Burke and Hare sold cadavers (some of whom they helped on their way) to Dr Knox for his anatomy lectures. This film does the same and is quite lavish in its recreation of the period and its look. We feel transported back into the times, the dinginess as well as the respectability. But the film and seriousness.

In the 1960s there were a number of period films set in England in the 18th and 19th centuries, following the success of Tom Jones. But, they took the humorous and satiric line in their storytelling, films like Where’s Jack (a highwayman story) and Lock Up Your Daughters (memories of Hogarth). This Burke and Hare goes for the comedy and the satire.

In many ways it is often silly. However, the blend of the serious with the silly makes for a sense of realism as well as for some laughs and a lot of smiles – though its macabre sense of humour may not appeal to those who like their comedies to be straightforward.

Not only are the production values quite high, the director is John Landis, out of films for some years, but evoking memories of An American Werewolf in London, let alone The Blues Brothers. He has always enjoyed putting hijinks on screen.

And the cast. Gollum himself, Andy Serkis is Hare, while Simon Pegg plays more of the ingenuous straight man as Burke. The two rival Edinburgh doctors are played by Tom Wilkinson (Dr Knox who took delivery of the corpses) and Tim Curry. And who should be the captain of the militia but Ronny Corbett (who turned 80 just after the film’s UK release)? All kinds of British character actors turn up to make a kind of medley of British comedy, including Christopher Lee, Bill Bailey, Hugh Bonneville and Jenny Agutter.

There is a feminist addition to the plot. Burke becomes infatuated with a lady of the night with theatrical ambitions (Isla Fisher) whose aim is to put on an all women’s version of Macbeth. She is looking for a sponsor with money.

In doing a quick Wikipedia check after getting home from the screening, I see that the film gives a fairly true picture of the episode in Scottish criminal history after all – but, as the film notes at the beginning, ‘This is based on a true story – except the parts that are not’. If you are in the mood for a touch of 21st century carry on, Burke and Hare should keep you smiling.

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