FILM REVIEW: Burke and Hare (2010)

Burke and Hare (UK, 2010)
Directed by John Landis
Starring Simon Pegg, Andy Serkis, Isla Fisher, Tom Wilkinson

Twelve years is a long time in filmmaking, and there are few directors who have recovered from such a prolonged absence. Even the late great Stanley Kubrick dropped the ball very slightly with Eyes Wide Shut. And considering the last few films that John Landis has made - The Stupids, Blues Brothers 2000 and Susan's Plan - there will be a great many people who would wish him to extend his 'retirement'.I say 'retirement', for in reality Landis has never gone away. He may not have made a feature film since 1998, but the most excitable director in American cinema has been very busy behind the scenes. On top of his TV work and a host of blink-and-you'll-miss-him cameos, Landis has spent his time re-mastering his classic works and directing commercials with his fees going to various charities. Like John Carpenter, Landis had become disillusioned with modern Hollywood and its obsession with marketing and opening weekends. He was offered several films during his hiatus, and turned them all because the scripts were just not up to snuff (no pun intended).

It's therefore no surprise that Burke and Hare sees Landis returning to his darkly comic roots. It's a film made exactly the way he wanted it, drawing on both the anarchy of his early comedies and his love of gothic horror and Ealing Studios. The result is a very funny comedy which is a million miles from the sacrilege of Blues Brothers 2000 or the banality of Beverley Hills Cop III. It isn't quite up there with his best work, but it is a very welcome return to form.Burke and Hare is essentially an old-fashioned Ealing comedy in the tradition of The Ladykillers and Kind Hearts and Coronets. This means dark humour, grotesque characters, and a central story about individuals doing questionable things to earn a crust, usually involving murder. Unlike the recent St. Trinian's reboots, Burke and Hare is not exploiting the Ealing label in a bid to bring in a wider audience; both its premise and execution are rooted in this 1950s tradition, and the film is knowingly affectionate towards these works.

Although the film is backed by Ealing Studios, its weaknesses smack of Hollywood's desire to be economical with the truth. Both director and main stars have referred to this as a 'Regency' film, when in fact by 1828 George IV had been on the throne for eight years; being of sound mind and having no heir, there was nothing to be Regent of. When characters speak of 'the King' or 'His Majesty', it's easy to think they're not sure to which king they are referring.Likewise there is the matter of accents. The film is accurate in giving the lead characters Irish accents, since Burke and Hare were Irish immigrants who had recently arrived in Edinburgh. But Landis apparently coached Simon Pegg and Andy Serkis by showing them Darby O'Gill and the Little People, a mid-1970s Disney offering notable for its farcical accents and Sean Connery singing (shudders). Their accents might not wander from country to country like Russell Crowe's accent in Robin Hood, but they are comedy accents in a way that might seem retrograde.

But to gripe about these things for too long is to miss the point. The film freely admits to play fast and loose with the truth, and there are certain details about the story of Burke and Hare which Landis gets right. Other versions of the story uprooted the characters to Victorian England, for the simple reason that there is an abundance of Victorian locations in which to shoot. Most of the shooting was done on location in Edinburgh, with the only set being the interior of the prison in the last ten minutes. The film also redresses the popular myth that Burke and Hare were body-snatchers or grave-robbers; they were something far more ingenious and entrepreneurial (if murder can be so described).Like his underrated comedy Into The Night, Burke and Hare is at heart a light-hearted, raucous romp with Landis' tongue firmly in his cheek. What he brings to the table is his not just his expertise when it comes to comic timing or staging set-pieces, but his love of mixing the gruesome with the hilarious. This is not a horror comedy in the manner of American Werewolf, but a lot of the jokes are designed to make you squirm in your seats, laughing out loud as the bones crack and the blood runs.

The film begins with Tim Curry, putting on a ripe performance as an old-school anatomist, conducting a vivisection. He slices through a man's leg, causing blood to spray all over his students, and gleefully remarks, "that would be an artery!". Then there is the sight of 'old Donald' 'lying' on Dr. Knox's table, having been folded in half to get him into a barrel. There are other, drier moments, such as Burke pretending to be William Wordsworth to get into a club, and Hare's comments about women "costing an arm and a leg".7Burke and Hare is also visually impressive. The film is shot by John Mathieson, who has worked extensively with Ridley Scott since Gladiator. He captures the dark gothic quality of Edinburgh's streets, bringing a very Hammer-esque quality to the smoke-ridden passages through which drunken, lardy gentleman would wander to their doom. The film could almost be described as an affectionate parody of Hammer, combining stylish visuals with a modern, earthy sense of humour. This is supported by a brief cameo from Christopher Lee, who appears as a delirious soldier whom Burke and Hare ease into the next world (by sitting on him).This brings us nicely onto the issue of cameos. In the past Landis' desire to pack the screen with his best friends has often been distracting; in the second half of Into The Night, they pop up with such alarming frequency that we start to lose sight of the story. Here his choice of cameos is much more restrained and apposite; we still get old friends like Jenny Agutter turning up, but Landis times their appearances to perfection. In addition to Agutter's appearance as a hammy actress (knowing laugh), the best bit parts are Paul Whitehouse's drunken Scot, who survives being pushed down a hundred flights of stairs, and Michael Winner, who goes over a cliff in a stagecoach without so much as a "calm down dear!".

This restraint is what makes Burke and Hare so enjoyable, since it demonstrates that Landis has matured as a filmmaker. Most of the indulgences which marked his career after Into The Night have gone, as has his appetite for gratuitous nudity. Although both Isla Fisher and Jessica Hynes play bawdy, sensual roles, neither character is a bolt-on designed to bring in the lads' mag audience. Both characters end up as fleshed-out, ambitious, independent women, so that even during the sex scenes it doesn't feel like the plot is grinding to a halt to titillate teenagers.The film also deserves credit for addressing the moral issues surrounding Burke and Hare, rather than just playing out the story like Carry on Murdering. There is an interesting subplot involving an all-female production of Macbeth; while superficially a construct to bring Pegg and Fisher together, it is worked into the story very well. Pegg talks about Macbeth's internal struggle between good and evil, and his motivation lying ultimately in a desire to be loved. This and Dr. Knox's attempt to map the human body through photography tap into the central dilemma of their story. What Burke and Hare did was morally wrong, but does that make them vile people? And in the long term, were their gruesome killings strangely justified due to the advances in medicine?Burke and Hare is a welcome return for John Landis, both to the big screen and to form. The film succeeds as a comedy, with great jokes and great chemistry between Simon Pegg and Andy Serkis. Tom Wilkinson and Tim Curry relish their roles as the rivalling doctors, and Ronnie Corbett is very enjoyable as the head of the Militia. It may be old-fashioned and rough around the edges; certainly it's not up there with Trading Places or An American Werewolf in London. But it remains Landis' best work since Into the Night and could be the ideal starting point for a full-scale comeback.

Rating: 4/5

Verdict: A good old-fashioned return to form


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