Sunday, 7 November 2010

Burke and Hare

Burke and Hare represents a multi-faceted resurrection. On the one hand, it's the return of director John Landis to the screen, he of the ghoulishly gory An American Werewolf in London. It also combines his talents with the brand awareness of distributor Ealing Studios, in a story based on the notorious 19th century murderers and grave robbers of the title. Gothic, quintessentially British and with a basis in grisly history? Little wonder genre fans were salivating.

Ah but some of those juicy tasters have been compromised, especially the latter. For what we end up with is a romanticized variation that cuts very close to slapstick, ignoring that both Burke and Hare were really not deserving of glib celebrity status. Accept Burke and Hare as a broad farce with some deft performances and a surprisingly gentle, rather than caustic, tone, and Landis' film will work its magic. Historians and those expecting more meat on the bones will likely see their interest fizzle like the proverbial quicklime.

It's actually surprisingg how amiable Burke and Hare is, largely downplaying the comic gore (bar a few choice moments), and instead honing a nice camaraderie between stars Simon Pegg and Andy Serkis. But the sense of focus is misguided, getting giggles out of grave-robbery and turning murder into mischief. The wider tapestry of acclaimed actors are also a draw and a distraction, beginning with Bill Bailey as a friendly hangman who lays out the initial context: namely Tim Curry and Tom Wilkinson as doctors opposed at either ends of the Hippocratic oath in 1820's Edinburgh (it doesn't take a genius to figure out which one relishes amputating limbs off live patients).

Into the mix come Pegg and Serkis' Ulster scoundrels who realise there is a profitable business to be made in supplying cadavers. Possessing little skill for the art of grave-robbery, they soon resort to murdering their victims. Although the film provides its own get out clause with an opening epigraph ('The following is based on fact - except for the parts that aren't), it's much less American Werewolf than Blackadder. Not that the comparison is a bad thing: Richard Curtis' and Ben Elton's series was brilliant at intelligently making light of significant events.

But intelligence is what Burke and Hare consciously seems to lack, not to mention a stream of strong laughs, although its good nature never ceases to propel the story along. It's one thing to satirize mass-murderers; to blunt the tools and rely on a production line of star cameos (some winning; some odd; some blink and miss) is somewhat complacent. That said, Jessica Hynes (as Serkis' avaricious wife), Curry, Wilkinson and Ronnie Corbett (as the miniature militia) offer nicely quirky character turns. Isla Fisher on the other hand, as an aspiring actress in a new production of Macbeth carrying on a relationship with Pegg, only distracts from the core of the story.

Visually and physically however, it's as beautifully designed as anything Landis has done, recalling Monty Python's Holy Grail in its convincingly grimy cast members and vital recreation of Edinburgh as a city with a vested interest in the autopsy table. The production values threaten to hold more interest than the screenplay itself, a pity given the hard work of both Pegg and Serkis, both of whom are enormously accomplished at physical and verbal comedy. But then, what exactly are we supposed to be laughing at?

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