Burke and Hare
Reviewed by Damien Straker on May 17, 2011
presents a film directed
by John Landis
Screenplay by Piers Ashworth and Nick Moorcroft
Starring: Simon Pegg, Andy Serkis, Tom Wilkinson, Isla Fisher and Tim Curry
Running Time: 90 minutes
Released: May 12, 2011
During the 1820s in Edinburg, corpses are stolen so that they can be dissected and used for medical science and research. One of the doctors arranging this is Doctor Robert Knox (Tom Wilkinson). He's finding it increasingly difficult to get fresh corpses because the graves are now being guarded by the militia and also because any bodies from the executioner (Bill Bailey) are now being sent to Knox's rival, Dr. Monro (Tim Curry). When the King announces that there is a reward for the most improvement in medical science, Knox ambitiously sets out to map the inside and outside of the human body. Meanwhile, a pair of Irish swindlers in William Burke (Simon Pegg) and William Hare (Andy Serkis) find themselves broke. One of their tenants has died and they need to find a new source of income. They are hired by Knox to rob graves and bring him the fresh bodies. He's impressed with their first delivery and he pays them handsomely. Burke is reluctant but Hare manages to convince him and he is driven further when he meets a beautiful bar girl named Ginny Hawkins (Isla Fisher). She wants to start an all female stage version of Macbeth and Burke offers to help fund the project. They become romantically involved but she also keeps him deliberately at an arm's length. .
Whoever suggested that this painfully unfunny film should be a comedy must have had their head stuck up in the clouds of Victorian smog. Somewhere beneath the visually drab and derivatively grey palettes of John Landis' film is another picture, loosely surrounding Darwinism. It's also a remake of a Vernon's Sewell 1972 film, which was notably a horror picture. But along with the mechanical plotting of Piers Ashworth and Nick Moorcroft's lumbering screenplay, Burke and Hare as a black comedy just doesn't work. Perhaps this was an attempt to soften the sensitive concept of 'the survival of the fittest' for more conservative viewers but there's little consideration for tone, authenticity or purpose. The film is, for example, bookended by a Bill Bailey's narrator, who breaks down the fourth wall by talking directly to the audience. For what effect though when so much effort has been placed into realistically recreating the period? The rest of the film is so desperate for laughs that every secondary character is practically winking at the camera with caricature-like smugness. Tone is important in comedy because it affects the weight of any drama and conflict. When everything is as exaggerated as it is here it loses its grounding, meaning and significance. Because of this, the film is lacking in dramatic tension and irony. When it reaches its conclusion after a very brisk ninety minutes it'll be met by the collective shrugs of audiences.
And though humour might be highly subjective, where is the joke in murdering the old, the dying or the overweight? It's making light of something that only the Aryan race would be proud of. The scenes where Burke and Hare smother an old woman to death make them extremely unsympathetic company. As emotionless as the rest film is, that scene is quite disturbing.
You either go with the film's moral bankruptcy or you don't. Hare might have been able to talk Burke into their business because of a girl and frequent reiterations of the line 'it was out of love' but they didn't convince me. Furthermore, moments of grotesque splatter involving blood spurts, faeces and rotting corpses are like something from a bad Monty Python sketch and detract from what is already a particularly unpleasant story. The cast is talented but I don't think that Andy Serkis is scheming or sneaky enough to be much fun. Together, Burke and Hare have about as much chemistry as some of their merchandise. At least Isla Fisher is a little more flamboyant, sensible motivations notwithstanding, but the inclusion of Macbeth is transparent and threadbare at best. I don't dislike Simon Pegg as a comedian but as an actor there are some worrying signs. He seems to be playing less of a character and more of a face puller, which was also the case in Paul from earlier this year too. Technically this is actually last year's film because after its release in the UK, going as far back as October, its Australian release was delayed till now. At least they got something right.