Burke & Hare Review
The last time we saw Simon Pegg in horror-comedy territory was as the titular cricket bat-wielding zombie slayer in Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead. Widely regarded as a modern classic of the genre, Shaun became an instant icon among horror film fans (“You’ve got red on you…”). Pegg’s return to similar bloody territory therefore carries a certain level of expectation with it, doubly so when the director is John Landis – the man behind one of the best horror-comedies of all time, An American Werewolf in London. Combine that with the name and history of the company behind it – the illustrious Ealing Studios – and you must have a sure-fire hit on your hands, surely?
Well, not necessarily. The best Simon Pegg films are undoubtedly those he has made with Edgar Wright. Without Wright’s directorial deftness, Pegg’s comedic strengths never seem to be fully stretched. Though not a straight-forward comedy, Burke & Hare is a case in point. Landis’ film recounts the notorious true-life tale of two enterprising Irish immigrants in Edinburgh, William Burke (Pegg) and William Hare (Andy Serkis), who happen upon a way to earn some good money – selling fresh corpses to the medical establishment, in the eminent form of Dr. Robert Knox (Tom Wilkinson). With fresh cadavers in short supply, Knox is only too happy to take the corpses off their hands, with no questions asked about how they came by them. As business booms, finding the right sort of candidates to shuffle off becomes increasingly difficult for the duo.
Plenty of opportunity for some dark comedy then, along with the odd splash of blood, so who better than Pegg to deliver it? He is certainly one of our most reliable performers, helping turn more straightforward fare like Run Fatboy Run in to something worth checking out. Yet Burke & Hare deliberately avoids any big laughs, instead sticking (reasonably) close to the truth and only occasionally breaking off to revel in the gallows humour of the story. The end result is an entirely agreeable jog through the key historical facts, but it never really goes for the comedy jugular. The occasionally uneven tone, plus a few hasty plot resolutions, hint at some significant cuts made to quicken the story’s pace. It’s also been a while since we saw Pegg in a film so clearly made on a tight budget.
The star does get the odd good laugh of course, but his role gradually becomes the emotional core of the story, as he tries to woo wannabe star Ginny (Isla Fisher) with his newfound wealth. In fact the best performance of the film comes from Andy Serkis, parachuted in at the last minute when David Tennant dropped out. A vastly underrated character actor, Serkis plays the mischievous Hare as a cross between Sweeney Todd and Derek Trotter. The brains (no pun intended) of the outfit, he is more eager than the somewhat-hesitant Burke to capitalise on Dr. Knox’s offer of ‘cash for cadavers’, and he goes about the task with a worrying amount of enthusiasm. Serkis’ devilish grin is perfectly suited to the part. Jessica Hynes as Hare’s soused wife is also good fun once she discovers her husband’s latest money-making scheme.
A quality supporting cast filling relatively small roles undoubtedly helps keep the film afloat: Ronnie Corbett as the investigating Captain determined to bring the murderers to justice, Tim Curry as Knox’s chief professional rival, and Bill Bailey as a hangman who doubles as the narrator. And, this being a John Landis film, there are a few choice cameos to watch out for – Christopher Lee makes the most of his one scene, while Jenny Agutter has a nice, albeit brief moment. Perhaps the best cameo of all is saved for the closing shot, as we are reminded that this story of skulduggery really did happen, and that maybe Burke had the last laugh after all.