In 1828, two Irish men murdered their way across Edinburgh to supply deep-pocketed local doctors with fresh cadavers for study. Their body count reached 17 before they were caught, and their legacy has been fodder for nearly a dozen films since 1945. It’s a grisly bit of Victorian era folklore, right up there with Jekyll & Hyde and Jack the Ripper.
This newest (and highly fictionalized) incarnation of the Burke and Hare tale sees the long-awaited return of John Landis, here directing Simon Pegg and Andy Serkis in the titular roles. Landis puts a lot of work into making Pegg and Serkis into a slapstick duo. Every time they enter a room, they peek their heads around the corner, one above the other, and mug appropriately (or maybe inappropriately, depending on your mood). In the town square, their expository snake oil “magical Irish moss” sales pitch ends with an angry mob chasing them down the cobbled streets while they hold onto their hats and make a run for it. It’s cute, but also quaint and lazy-seeming.
After their magic moss gambit goes bust, they commiserate over their shared money woes, when suddenly a bonafide business venture emerges. Hare’s tenant, Old Donald (Robert Fyfe), dies unexpectedly, leaving Hare and his wife Lucky (Jessica Hynes) not only without their expected monthly income, but also saddled with a body to dispose of. Selling Old Donald’s corpse to Dr. Knox (Tom Wilkinson), a respected doctor at Edinburgh School of Anatomy, solves both problems. It’s a get-rich-quick scheme and a win-win.
Once they’ve identified the demand, Burke and Hare begin to work on supply. After a few well-timed encounters with terminal ne’er do wells, it becomes easier for them to kill people outright rather than wait around for the sick, elderly, and unfortunate to die. These potentially morally fraught moments aren’t played for anything other than laughs. Thickening the comic plot, Dr. Knox and Dr. Monro (Tim Curry) begin competing over who can produce the most compelling overview of the human anatomy: winner earns the king’s seal of approval and bragging rights, natch.
As Burke and Hare keep Dr. Knox in steady supply of corpses, their new tax bracket has them catching the eye of local townsfolk, including working girl-turned actress Ginny (Isla Fisher), who’s looking for a wealthy investor in her all-woman production of Macbeth. Burke is instantly smitten with Ginny and her “talent,” and devotes himself to continuing the killing spree, despite his moral misgivings, to fund her play. Here the film attempts to intertwine the thematic elements of Macbeth (power, greed, revenge) with its own (love, loyalty, class struggle). But the connections are tenuous. At best, both stories are set in Scotland, so there’s that.
What does ring true is Hare and Lucky’s mercurial, but passionate marriage. While he’s an unscrupulous salesman looking to make a quick buck, she’s equally shrewd, yet troubled by alcoholism. Once he begins earning big money from killing, she cleans herself up, not only inspired by their new lifestyle, but also by Hare’s impressive business savvy, which, quite simply, turns her on. Hare has a similarly winning effect on the audience, in large part to Serkis’ performance. He may just be the most magnetic film actor in recent memory. Watching him in live action is so captivating, we might forget that he’s best known as the master of motion-capture acting (Gollum in Lord of the Rings and Cesar in Rise of the Planet of the Apes). Hare and Lucky’s sex scenes are easily the film’s funniest. Perhaps with so much repetitive death and bureaucracy and bed pan jokes, a married couple’s sex life feels like a gust of fresh air just when things are most stale.
That staleness suggests what lurks throughout the film: Landis doesn’t have a firm grasp on the story he’s telling. Or rather, he’s committed himself to telling it literally (and cheekily) when there’s plenty of rich thematic subtext to explore. For a dark comedy, there’s very little darkness, save for bone-crunching sound effects and occasional blood spatter. Burke and Hare’s immigrant status, chronic unemployment, seamy business practice, and moral relativism are all fascinating elements pulsating beneath a film that opts for cheap gags rather than a slicing into its own gristle.