Burke & Hare Review: Murder Not So Horrid
When a press screening official tells you that reviews are embargoed until the day of release, it’s usually an indication that what you’re about to see is probably fairly drab. On this occasion, Burke & Hare was no exception – dreary, monotonous and not very funny – you can see why PR didn’t want journalists drumming up bad press in the build up to its release.
The real-life story of William Burke (Simon Pegg) and William Hare (Andy Serkis) reads like an Ealing film as scripted by Edgar Allan Poe. Chancing upon a profitable business supplying doctors with the recently deceased for anatomical dissection, they devise a scheme whereby they murder the local populace so as to secure a steady income stream. Of course, murder always leaves a trail and, as increasing demand from the medical profession causes the body count to rocket, the local militia soon come knocking on their door.
The challenge for any film whose central protagonists are essentially unpalatable is to somehow make them endearing and less morally reprehensible. In slavish adherence to this requirement, Simon Pegg’s Burke falls in love with Ginny, (Isla Fisher) an aspiring prostitute-cum-actress, who ropes him into financing her all-female production of Macbeth whilst Andy Serkis’ Hare aspires to a life of wealth so he can settle down into domestic bliss with his alcoholic wife Lucky (Jessica Hynes).
On paper you can see why the project, with its potential for comic bantering and gallows humour, attracted the calibre of cast and crew that it did. Unfortunately, Burke & Hare, for all its Ealing posturing, transpires as more of a Carry On inspired affair, relying on frequently hammy sex scenes and innuendos to elicit the audience’s laughter. The jokes that aren’t as dependent on cheap gags either fall flat or are simply too broad humoured to warrant anything more than a quiet titter, if they achieve that.
Commendably, John Landis (An American Werewolf In London, Blues Brothers) resists the temptation of many an American director and foregoes a picture-postcard presentation of Edinburgh, making fine use instead of the city’s distinctive Medieval and Georgian architecture, capitalising on the narrow darkly lit streets to create an atmosphere reminiscent of Jack the Ripper’s London, bathed as it is in an omnipresent sheet of dense fog and mist. It is a shame, therefore, that the script could not match the locations for credibility, letting an excellent cast down in the process, wasting the likes of Tom Wilkinson, Tim Curry, Michael Smiley and Sir Christopher Lee among others.
I genuinely wanted to like Burke & Hare but ended up feeling bludgeoned by its monotony and failure to tie its disparate elements together into a cohesive whole. It’s also another lacklustre edition to Simon Pegg’s fledgling credibility in the movie industry, seemingly unable to match the success, quality and inventiveness of his collaborations with Edgar Wright.