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The John Landis who made Trading Places and An American Werewolf in London — let alone Michael Jackson’s Thriller and The Blues Brothers — is a shadow of his former self if this comedy is any guide.
Burke & Hare is an excursion into Ealing comedy territory with a smart cast led by Simon Pegg and Andy Serkis as the two hopeless 19th-century grave-robbers. But it goes for pace and parody rather than wit, abounding with Victorian clichés about grasping anatomical surgeons, drunken dolls, daft soldiers and pompous worthies. The consolation lies in the minor roles.
Tom Wilkinson is appropriately hammy as the Scots surgeon who accepts bodies wherever they come from and thinks he’s a marginally better scientist than God. And Ronnie Corbett, as the Captain of the Guard who inadvertently discovers Burke and Hare’s dastardly deeds, is consistently funny. We expect him to break into song any moment but he never does.
Tim Curry, Allan Corduner, Hugh Bonneville, Isla Fisher and Jessica Hynes struggle to do much more than splutter out their lines as best they can, while other notables appear and disappear in a few seconds, Christopher Lee dying tetchily and Michael Winner deposited over a cliff in the blink of an eye.
The film has been made with little guile, taking the easy way out with slapstick physical comedy rather than making any discernible comment about its times — but, on the credit side, John Mathieson’s cinematography chimes in well with some good costume and production design. If only what we hear was as good as what we see, it might just have caught fire.
It’s impossible not to wish that Burke & Hare were better, and there are oh so very many ways in which it might have been. It’s a ghoulish historical comedy about the notorious Edinburgh body-snatchers. Wait, did I say comedy? Watching it, I was stricken with doubt.
There’s precisely one proper laugh. Paul Whitehouse has a one-scene cameo as a tottering waster who gets violently shoved down some stone steps, appears to snap every bone in his body, and then gets up burbling apologies and staggers off. Sorry to spoil that. Tim Curry has some nice moments of patrician deadpan as a snooty surgeon. That’s about the extent of the credit column.
Trouble is, Simon Pegg and Andy Serkis, as the titular duo, are stuck at the thoroughly mirthless business end of proceedings, trying to make a go of the corpse-collection business for their eager patron, Dr Knox (Tom Wilkinson).
We await delivery of a point, but the point postmaster must have gone on strike.
The usually appealing Isla Fisher, as a feisty bar wench with her hand in Pegg’s pockets, proves that you can be born in Scotland and still comprehensively forget what a Scottish accent sounds like. If you like fog and slop, you do get your money’s worth, but it’s a long time since John Landis has directed anything that isn’t an out-and-out misfire, and this doesn’t end the run.
It might be one of the last days of shooting (the 38th of 39 in fact), but March 18, 2010, was a very good day indeed to be on the set of John Landis’ new comedy horror movie Burke & Hare . For a start, three of the total seventeen murders carried out by the infamous corpse sellers William Burke and William Hare in Scotland between 1827-28 are being filmed at the Luton Hoo location, and one of those is actually the ‘Burking’ explanation death. Burke was so proud of purposely smothering his victim’s mouth while compressing their chest that the Edinburgh-based gruesome twosome conceitedly named the killing method after him. Then there’s the reason why practically all the headline cast has arrived at the Bedfordshire country estate set in a state of real excitement even though they aren’t scheduled to work. Because today is when legendary genre icon Christopher Lee shoots his cameo performance as Old Joseph and everyone wants to witness this moment in history.
As usual, you can hear director Landis long before you see him. His booming voice echoes across the tiny set, constructed in an old barn to resemble Hare’s frugal lodging house. In this instance King Kong and Gollum star Andy Serkis, playing Hare, is asking his director if he can shoot another take suffocating Lee’s character. Landis grumblingly yells, “It had better be f**king brilliant then.” Once more the cast and crew laugh at yet another Landis’ forthright comment, and again when Serkis puts another comic spin on the action and the director roars, “That was horrible…but in a good way!”
“John really is a force of nature,” remarks Serkis when his director is out of earshot tucking in to his favorite British snack, ginger nut biscuits. He continues, “Everybody working on Burke & Hare is having an absolute ball. No one has a bad word to say about John. His constant stream of movie business anecdotes has kept us entertained throughout an arduous shoot. And his encyclopedic knowledge of film is astonishing. If he asks me if I’ve seen yet another film I haven’t, it’ll be embarrassing. He keeps on providing me with lists of must-see movies! I’ll tell you this though, John is one of the hardest workers I’ve come across – his stamina is amazing. He really was a great choice to direct Burke & Hare.”
That directing opportunity arose for John Landis when he trawled London two years ago looking for an interesting project as he explains. “I hadn’t made a film in England since Spies Like Us in 1985 so I met up with loads of independent producers because I wanted to see what was out there away from the Hollywood mainstream which is making such crap these days. I was on the lookout for something interesting, unusual. Okay, I was still given a lot of bad scripts, but then I met Ealing Studios’ producer Barnaby Thompson through my friend Gurinder Chadha [director of It's a Wonderful Afterlife and Bride & Prejudice] who has an office there. Barnaby asked me what I wanted to do and normally when you reply ‘something of quality’, producers are usually at a loss because they want you to say a rom-com, a monster movie, etc. I didn’t care what the genre was as long as it was good and I could do something interesting. So he gave me a couple of scripts to read and one was Burke & Hare by writers Nick Moorcroft and Piers Ashworth.”
A decade ago, U.K. shingle Fragile Films resurrected the treasured Ealing Studios brand, and “Burke & Hare” reps their closest attempt yet to match the tone and content of such beloved Ealing classics as “The Ladykillers” (1955). So much for intention. As for achievement, the film struggles to match the original Ealing’s quality benchmark, and its unapologetically old-fashioned sensibility may have trouble connecting with contempo auds. Helmer John Landis’ amiable, creaky comedy about 18th-century corpse retailers Burke and Hare should rattle some funny bones in native Blighty, but may face B.O. graveyards abroad.
In 1828 Edinburgh, Irish immigrants William Burke (Simon Pegg) and William Hare (Andy Serkis) strike it rich when Hare’s elderly tenant dies of natural causes. Learning there’s a ready market for freshly deceased bodies at the laboratory of pioneering anatomist Dr. Robert Knox (Tom Wilkinson), the pair shove the dead man into a herring barrel and wheel him off to collect a rich fee. From there, it’s a slippery slope of moral hazard, as they hasten another aged tenant’s departure via a helpful bout of suffocation, then induce a heart attack in an obese stranger. Burke and Hare have somehow stumbled into the lucrative trade of body-snatching.
Crafting a satisfying comedy celebrating two notorious serial killers certainly qualifies as a writing challenge, so credit goes to co-scripters Piers Ashworth and Nick Moorcroft for devising credibly sympathetic protagonists. Burke is sensibly awarded two redeeming features: his ethical quandary, which he continues to voice right up until the end, and his love for pretty young thesp-prostitute Ginny (Isla Fisher), who needs funds to mount her innovative all-female theater production of “Macbeth.” Hare’s impulse is more straightforwardly avaricious, although his troubled home life — the turnabout in his fortunes revives the spirits, and libido, of his wife (Jessica Hynes) — likewise provides a rooting interest.
As posted about last night and earlier today, Isla attended the world premiere of her new movie Burke & Hare in London last night, and I have now added 90 photos from the event to our Gallery! This was Isla’s first major public appearance in over a year, and her first appearance since the birth of her 2nd child a couple of months ago. She looked so gorgeous in a printed red Dolce & Gabbana lace dress with a velvet bolero jacket and black pumps. I love this look on her! What are your thoughts? Is this a great outfit for Isla’s return to the red carpet? Are you excited for Burke & Hare? Leave a comment!