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.