Burke and Hare

As the opening credits roll for Burke And Hare, we are informed that “everything in this film is true”, shortly followed by the addition, “except the bits that are not”. When you consider the tale; murderous Irish down-and-outs, working in secret with respected Edinburgh University doctors to “deliver” cadavers to dissect, it would be easy to assume this is a story full of “the bits that are not”. And yet, upon researching the facts, it seems that truth can sometimes be stranger than fiction. Though the sub-plots have been bulked out, the story of two Irishmen determined to achieve riches no matter how deadly the cost is actually fairly bang on. Which makes watching Burke and Hare both more delicious and substantially more horrifying – something I’m sure the slightly twisted cast and crew will be pleased about.

Simon Pegg and Andy Serkis play the titular duo; down on their luck, tired of debt and sick of flogging bogus products on the streets of Edinburgh, they’re beginning to worry that they’ll never get their big business break. Hare (Serkis) has a terrifying, wine-soaked wife (Hynes) to answer to and Burke (Pegg) has rather inconveniently fallen in love with a young actress (Isla Fisher) determined to put on the first all-female version of Macbeth. Jobs are thin on the ground, money is scarce and it seems the only excitement in Edinburgh is to be found in the University, where scientific progress is bounding forward at an amazing rate. Fascinated with the construction of the human body, the brilliant professor Dr Knox (Tom Wilkinson) is hampered only by one thing; the lack of available stiffs to cut up in the name of research. In order to best his rival Dr Monroe (Tim Curry, who just never fails to be glorious), Dr Knox is willing to pay an excellent price for any bodies that come his way. And its not long before Burke and Hare realise he’s not the kind of man to ask questions…

burke and hare review

This is a film that delights in two things; the black absurdity of its central story and the fun of cameo appearances. Both are great fun. Neither are actually anything to do with particularly good comic writing. The funnies of Burke And Hare come from the steady, almost relentless stream of British comedy legends, all of whom do their bit to keep the pace engaging, dark and silly. Everyone’s having so much fun that you don’t actually stop to wonder whether they’re doing anything genuinely funny. Paul Whitehouse, Reece Shearsmith, Michael Winner, Ronnie Corbett, Steven Merchant, Bill Bailey and more; they all turn up at various points, with some appearances so fleeting that your viewing experience begins to turn from amiable watching to a feverish search for familiar faces. Its a bit like Where’s Wally, except everyone is Wally, and he’s bloody everywhere. The only person you can’t concentrate on too hard is Andy Serkis himself, because no matter how hard you try, you can’t quite shake the feeling that you’re watching Gollum wander about in a relatively convincing Child Catcher suit.

burke and hare review

That aside, he and Pegg make a lively duo, though Pegg is upstaged somewhat by the brilliant on-screen chemistry between Serkis and Hynes – their blackly comic exchanges as man and wife steal the show. Isla Fisher is perfectly passable as the innocent thespy love interest, though the Shakespearean sub-plot seems to fizzle out as the film reaches its fairly silly climax. All in all, there’s frothy, dark fun to be had all round, but it has to be said that its mainly due to the white-hot collective power of the cast rather than genuinely well-constructed comedy. As enjoyable as it is, it may be that Burke and Hare doesn’t cope with dissection as well as its ill-gotten cadavers.

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