Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: John Landis

Stars: Simon Pegg, Andy Serkis, Christopher Lee, Jenny Agutter, Ronnie Corbett, Tom Wilkinson, Isla Fisher, Tim Curry.

This wonderfully entertaining and farcical black comedy about murder and grave robbing hails from the newly reinvigorated Ealing Studios, and it harks back to some of the classics from the studio, like The Ladykillers and Kind Hearts And Coronets.

Burke & Hare is set in 1820’s Edinburgh, at a time when surgeons were exploring the frontiers of medical knowledge and expanding their knowledge of human anatomy by cutting up fresh cadavers. It was also a lucrative time for “resurrectionists”, or grave robbers, in common parlance, who could earn a pretty penny by supplying these respected doctors with fresh corpses.

For William Burke (Simon Pegg) and his best friend William Hare (Andy Serkis, who replaced David Tennant), a pair of desperate but enterprising Irish conmen eking out a meagre existence in the crowded marketplace, it was a quick way to earn some spending money. When they are promised money by leading surgeon Alexander Knox (Tom Wilkinson) they see it as a chance to improve their lot. But the militia is clamping down on the unsavoury practice of grave robbing. And when Burke and Hare find that grave robbing is too arduous and dangerous they accidentally discover that murder is a better, and safer option.

The opening panel card announces that what follows is true… expect for those parts that are not, which sets the tone for this story which takes a rather liberal approach to history. Burke & Hare is the best film that John Landis has directed in over twenty years. The director of comedy classics of the calibre of National Lampoon’s Animal House and The Blues Brothers has largely squandered his reputation and talent on music videos and lame sequels like Blues Brothers 2000 and Beverly Hills Cop III, and awful comedies like the aptly named The Stupids. Here he is working from a great script from Piers Ashworth and Nick Moorcroft (St Trinians, etc), and he brings a sense of energy to the material. Joby Talbot’s marvellously Irish-flavoured musical score adds a nice counterpoint to the pitch black humour, and a jaunty jig accompanies one especially funny sequence involving a runaway barrel containing a dead body.

Burke & Hare packs a lot into its brisk 90 minute running time, but Landis handles the various characters and subplots nicely. A couple of major subplots explore Burke’s infatuation with Ginny (Isla Fisher), a prostitute turned legitimate actress who wants to mount the first all-female production of Macbeth, and the rivalry between Knox and Dr Monroe (a scenery chewing Tim Curry).

Landis has also assembled a great cast to bring the various characters to life. Pegg and Serkis develop a wonderful rapport, with Serkis especially good as the amoral Hare. There are fun cameos from veteran Christopher Lee and Jenny Agutter, one of the darlings of British cinema in the 70’s (The Eagle Has Landed, Logan’s Run, etc), and comic Bill Bailey. And Ronnie Corbett, whom we rarely see on screen these days, is a hoot as the hapless captain in charge of an incompetent militia. Jessica Hynes is also wonderful as Mrs Hare, the avaricious, lusty lush.

And Landis’ usual penchant for offbeat sight gags pays off with a brief cameo from Greyfriars Bobby.

While the story of this pair of 19th century serial killers has been explored on screen previously in films like The Body Snatcher and The Doctor And The Devils, Burke & Hare offers a fresh and very funny spin on their tale.




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