Burke & Hare is a dark comedy directed by John Landis about 19th century serial killers played by Simon Pegg and Andy Serkis. That's all I had to hear to become embarrassingly excited about this film and I'm happy to report that my enthusiasm was handsomely rewarded.
The year is 1828 and William Burke (Pegg) and William Hare (Serkis) are two enterprising Irishmen engaged in the business of fleecing innocent folks in the markets of Edinburgh, Scotland. These two conmen will happily sell you cheese mold as a cure-all medicine if you're gullible enough to buy it. As it turns out, most of their customers are smarter than that which leaves our dynamic duo in search of a new product to peddle. This is where the medical rivalry between Dr. Knox (Tom Wilkinson) and Dr. Monro (Tim Curry) comes into play. Both doctors run their own medical schools which are always in need of fresh corpses. When Monro corners the market on all legally obtained corpses (by state-sanctioned hangings etc.), Knox gets a little desperate for some stiffs he can call his own.
As luck would have it, Burke and Hare have just come into possession of a dead body through perfectly innocent means. When Knox pays them a pretty penny for it, they agree that to keep this lucrative business going their means will have to become a lot less innocent. After a quick and fruitless stop in the land of gravediggers, they move on to more assured methods of generating the product they need. They start picking off the elderly and the infirm (along with a few others) and send them on to an early grave. As their business starts to flourish, their personal lives pick up as well. Hare's wife, Lucky (Jessica Hynes), takes a renewed interest in her husband while Burke is promptly charmed by Ginny (Isla Fisher) who hopes he can fund her all female production of Macbeth. Unfortunately the guys have also attracted the attention of the law (Ronnie Corbett) and other unsavory types (David Schofield and David Hayman). This will not end well.
The film underlines its cheeky tone fairly early with a title card that declares "This is a true story except for the parts that are not". Of course that statement is quite accurate since the murderous shenanigans of Burke and Hare are a matter of historical fact. The film takes some liberties with the final fate of some of the characters but largely traces along the outline of what really happened. Although Burke and Hare's story has been told numerous times before (including 1960's The Flesh and the Fiends, 1972's Burke & Hare and 1985's The Doctor and the Devils), Landis working from a script by Piers Ashworth and Nick Moorcroft finds a new angle to explore. He downplays the horror of their ruthless actions and finds the humor in this satire of blood-soaked capitalism. As portrayed by Pegg and Serkis, our leads are not just cold-blooded murderers. They are also businessmen who have carved out a niche in what happens to be an extremely illegal field of trade.
Of course, it's a tough business trying to present such characters as enterprising underdogs who may even be worthy of our sympathy. This is where the film's success crucially hinges on the casting of Pegg and Serkis. Both are likable actors who carry over their general affability to their roles here. Serkis may be the brains of the outfit but even he is presented without too much malice. He may have money on his mind but he never seems outright evil. In comparison, Burke is practically a boy scout. He is the more simple-minded half of our lead pair. When he isn't being coerced by Hare, he allows himself to be manipulated by Ginny and her feminine charms. At one point, Burke states that 'he did it all for love'. It is to Pegg's credit that we believe Burke and dread his impending fate.
Landis has also done an excellent job of keeping this from being the 'Pegg and Serkis show'. By surrounding our leads with a capable cast of genuinely funny people, he almost turns this into an ensemble piece. Hynes and Fisher are energetic foils for the guys while Curry is fiendishly over the top as a doctor with a thing for feet...and cutting them off. Wilkinson plays it relatively straight as Monro's driven counterpart. Other familiar faces pop up in cameos but I don't dare spoil them here. I'll just say that they are well integrated and land the laughs they are aiming for. With that said, I should remind folks that this is still a dark comedy. Although the film's satire runs deep, occasionally making way for bits of slapstick and broad lunacy, the mirth is tinged with an undeniable darkness and gloom. As long as gallows humor is your thing, I think you'll enjoy what Burke & Hare has to offer.
Next up, we have the lengthiest extra which is a series of Interviews with most of the central cast and a few key folks working behind the scenes. Over the course of roughly an hour, we hear from 11 different people including Pegg, Serkis, Fisher, Hynes, Wilkinson, Curry and Landis. Individually, all the interviews are informative as the participants tell us how they came to be involved with the film and what aspects of it they find most appealing. Unfortunately the cumulative effect is a bit numbing due to the repetitive nature of the questions and the similarity in replies. At least Landis injects some energy late in the proceedings by putting his passion front and center and not being shy about it.
A few Outtakes (2:23) catch the actors mugging for the camera followed by a Behind the Scenes featurette (23:48) which consists of B-Roll footage captured at a handful of different locations. While intermittently amusing, the featurette didn't really capture my attention. A Trailer (2:28) closes out the extras.