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Burke and Hare
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by Jay Seaver

"The rare successful historical buddy romantic comedy."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2011 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: The true story of 19th Century serial killers Burke & Hare is not a natural fit for romantic comedy, so this take on the characters is certainly going to stand out for that. It works better than one might imagine, though, in large part because there are enough funny and talented people involved.

In 1828, Edinburgh was famous for its several competing medical schools, but the teaching of anatomy in those days required many, many cadavers, and Dr. Monro (Tim Curry) had used his pull with the city to get the supply from the hangman's noose for himself, frustrating rival Dr. Robert Knox (Tom Wilkinson). Meanwhile, across the city, the latest scheme of Mr. William Burke (Simon Pegg) and Mr. William Hare (Andy Serkis) has failed, and to make matters worse, an elderly tenant at the boarding house run bmy Hare's wife Lucky (Jessica Hynes) has died. At this point, the free market does its work, with Knox mentioning that he can always use more bodies. Unfortunately, their supply of dying tenants is short, the militia has stepped up patrols of the graveyard, and Burke is smitten with actress Ginny Hawkins (Isla Fisher), who needs money for her dream of mounting MacBeth with an all-female cast. Burke and Hare are going to need to increase the supply of fresh corpses to stay ahead of the game.

Of course, the movie spends relatively little time on the title characters actually murdering people - the screenplay by Piers Ashworth and Nick Moorcroft aims to present this version of the duo as doing horrible things less due to their own psychopathy than the tacit encouragement of Knox and the pressure to support the women in their lives. It is, at times, a bit of a cop-out; even when we see a montage of the pair's crimes, it's often easy to get the impression of a series of deaths by misadventure that Burke & Hare assisted rather than something that got their hands dirty.

That's probably what it takes for the audience to like Pegg's Burke, and for the most part it works, so it can't really be called a bad decision. Ashworth, Moorcroft, and director John Landis don't go for the pitch-black comedy, but score quite a bit with a lot of somewhat more innocuous gags (although that's a relative term - not all will find the sound of bones breaking as bodies are bent double to fit in a barrell funny, though it's a bit that likely works for most in the audience). There's plenty of good slapstick, frustration, bluster, and cheery corruption for the cast to play with, and Landis does a fine job of keeping everything snappy. No joke overstays its welcome, and while there are plenty of throwaway bits for attentive or knowledgeable viewers, the film doesn't stop and wait for the audience to either congratulate itself or wonder what the big deal is.

The best thing that this set-up has going for it, though, is Simon Pegg, who gives Burke just enough of a conscience and genuine affection for Ginny to get on the audience's good side and makes a great many of the gags work by playing Burke as being confused by his continuing to get away with this on the one hand and frustrated at getting in every one of Ginny's good graces but her bed on the other. Andy Serkis works well with him, his matter-of-factness being both a good match for Pegg's confusion and funny on its own. Isla Fisher is just the right sort of loopy as Ginny, out for herself but without malice about it, while Tom Wilkinson is fantastically dry and snobbish as Knox.

It's a shame he doesn't have more scenes with Tim Curry's Monro, because whenever Curry shows up, he's a reminder of how much making a comedy work can be about getting people who do something very well, putting them in the right position, and letting them bounce off each other. There are a lot of actors with small but funny roles in this movie, from Curry to Ronnie Corbett. The details of the production as a whole are also very nice, detailed without being overly ornate or run-down.

This is Landis's first theatrical feature in a decade, and a welcome return. There's a bit of rust there, but not nearly as much as one might fear, and having a good, funny cast certainly helps to shake it loose.

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originally posted: 08/04/11 14:24:34
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the Fantasia International Film Festival 2011 series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 15th Annual European Union Film Festival For more in the 15th Annual European Union Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

9/20/13 Ionicera good film, definitely underappreciated 4 stars
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  09-Sep-2011 (R)
  DVD: 20-Dec-2011

  29-Oct-2010 (15)

  DVD: 20-Dec-2011

Directed by
  John Landis

Written by
  Piers Ashworth
  Nick Moorcroft

  Simon Pegg
  Andy Serkis
  Isla Fisher
  Tom Wilkinson
  Tim Curry
  Christopher Lee

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