By Elena Cresci
Burke and Hare sees director John Landis return to the big screen with his first feature film in 20 years. In this latest offering, The Blues Brothers, Animal House and Trading Places director attempts to bring humour to a most grisly case of murders, with the help of an array of familiar faces of British comedy. The historical basis of the film lies in the infamous Burke and Hare murders that took place during the 1820’s, when two body-snatchers turned to murder in order to make money from the medical community’s desperate need for cadavers. It’s clear that Landis set himself quite the challenge in making comedy out of such a grisly inspiration.
So how do you make two murderers likeable? Burke and Hare are portrayed as two Ulstermen down on their luck, the kind of mischief makers who try to pass off cheese mould as magical moss. Hare, played by Andy Serkis, is clearly established as the alpha male and scheme-maker of the two. Simon Pegg’s Burke on the other hand is innocent, naïve and romantic; quite the juxtaposition to Hare’s mischievous character.
This almost ‘good-cop-bad-cop’ situation falls a little flat; there’s no comedic spark between Pegg and Serkis, especially when you compare this pair to Pegg and Frost, who have bucketloads of the stuff. Furthermore, the actors seem completely typecast, with Pegg, well-known for being a generally likeable bloke and almost always cast as such, playing the most amicable of the two, and Serkis, with the previous role of Gollum under his belt, playing the more dastardly of the pair. Interestingly, David Tennant was initially cast as Hare – it would have been interesting to see whether the roles would have seemed typecast had Tennant been able to play Hare after all.
Half the problem with the comedy in Burke and Hare lies in the fact that it is pretty difficult to make murder funny. Instead of quotable one liners from the protagonists, we have far too much in the way of slapstick corpse comedy, as shown in one scene where the pair roll – and almost lose control of – a barrel with a dead body inside around the cobbled streets of Edinburgh. Unfortunately, it’s just not funny.
The stand-out, laugh-out-loud performances actually come from the supporting cast, who are unencumbered by the problems of corpse comedy. I’ve long been a fan of Jessica Hynes since her Spaced days with co-star Pegg, and she is brilliantly funny as Hare’s long-suffering wife. Unfortunately the same can’t really be said of the other leading lady, Isla Fisher, whose character pretty much serves the sole purpose of being a bit of eye candy. Despite being Burke’s love interest, it’s never really made clear what exactly it is Burke sees in Ginny, other than that she’s a looker, because, to be blunt, she’s pretty annoying, and does nothing but string him along for the entirety of the film. I get the feeling that we’re meant to find her constant ignoring of his advances hilarious, but this is another comedic factor which falls flat on its face.
It almost seems as though throughout the film, Landis relies on a sea of well-known faces as a device to keep his audience entertained. There is much enjoyment to be had from the initial excitement of seeing the likes of Bill Bailey, Tim Curry and Ronnie Corbett (to name just a few!) on the same silver screen, but this is not the basis for a riot of a comedy. The comedic talent is clearly there; it’s the plot and the writing that lets the film down. There are a few positives: the Edinburgh setting lends itself to some wonderful backdrops of old cobbled streets, and some of the cameos truly are a delight to watch. All in all, it’s a fairly entertaining film, but it’s really not anything special.
At the core, it’s black comedy done pretty badly – to put it bluntly, it’s just not funny. There’s a key lesson to be learnt from Burke and Hare: slapstick doesn’t really work when corpses are involved.
4 OUT OF 10