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William Burke (Simon Pegg) and William Hare (Andy Serkis) are barely scratching out a living in 1820s Edinburgh. After yet another failed scam, they return to Hare's lodging house where his wife Lucky (Jessica Hynes) tells them that a tenant - a rare source of revenue - has suddenly died on rent day. As the boys decide how to dispose of the body over a drink, they discover that a corpse can fetch a good price from Dr Knox (Tom Wilkinson) studying and demonstrating anatomy, in the city that leads the world in the subject. Encouraged, they begin to turn it into a business, while Burke falls for aspiring actress Ginny (Isla Fisher) who is looking for investors in her all-female production of Hamlet.

Review by Louise Keller:
If you look at the impressive pedigree of the British cast, you could be excused for being lulled into a sense of security, if you're thinking about seeing this black comedy about 19th century scallywag entrepreneurs providing corpses for the medical profession. After all, there's Simon Pegg, Andy Serkis, Tom Wilkinson, Tim Curry and the likes of Bill Bailey, Michael Smiley, Christopher Lee, Hugh Bonneville, Jenny Agutter and Ronnie Corbett in smaller roles. Lovely Isla Fisher is more than a pretty face; she has shown she can deliver good comedy. There's also director John Landis at the helm (of Michael Jackson's Thriller fame). So what could possibly go wrong? One single word sums it all up: everything.

The basic premise in which our two hapless protagonists Burke and Hare (Pegg and Serkis) decide to give fate a little push and allow poor unfortunates to meet their maker earlier than intended in order to boost their body quota has potential for a juicy black comedy. It's a genre I usually enjoy. But screenwriters Piers Ashworth and Nick Moorcroft have failed to construct a story that works on any level. It is simply not funny. Misconceived slapstick like Jessica Hynes falling face first into her porridge before taking a swig of the bottle, or a barrel-contorted body slapped into shape is hardly fuel for laughs.

Landis gets the tone badly wrong, directing the actors to ham it up almost burlesque style. His use of overly brightly-coloured plastic gore is at odds with the dark tones of the production design. Pegg who usually excels at portraying endearing, misunderstood characters is given little to play with; there's no ballast to the reasons he needs the money, other than selfish ones concerning his lust for Fisher's buxom Ginny. Fisher is the best thing in the film and comes off relatively unscathed. The idea of juxtaposing Ginny's all-female production of Macbeth with the murderous activities being conducted elsewhere is fine but badly executed.

This is a painfully dull film which is about the worst thing anyone could ever say about one that is supposed to be funny. Don't bother.

Review by Andrew L. Urban:
There's a robust sense of a pungent Edinburgh in 1828 and some equally repulsive wardrobe that works well to ground the film and transport us to a place and time when hygiene was yet to intrude on daily life. The opening scene in a cobbled market is one of the film's most evocative, bubbling with life, filled with carcasses.

Yet behind the doors of leading surgeons, Edinburgh was a leader in certain aspects of medicine, the study of anatomy amongst them. With grave robbing no longer an easy option, ruffians after a quick shilling have to devise new ways of collecting cadavers. Welcome to the world of Burke and Hare.

The two likely lads are larrikins with no hope of decent work, so they have to make do with the indecent kind. Simon Pegg and Andy Serkis are a great duo and the dramatic basis for the comedy is sound. The trouble with the film is in the screenplay; short of ideas to sustain the film as a comedy for its running time, the writers rely on the stars' delivery of thin material and a romantic subplot in which Burke (Pegg) is smitten by the lovely Ginny (Isla Fisher) while she is reciting a bit of Hamlet on a tavern tabletop.

The comic possibilities of collecting corpses quickly dry up, and the bitchy relationship between competing Drs Knox (Tom Wilkinson) and Monro (Tim Curry) is a rather dull affair. That leaves the budding romance, infused with Ginny's priority to take the money her Burke has earned so distastefully - not that she knows its origins.

Ronnie Corbett turns up as a miniature arm of the law, accompanied by two tall soldiers, supposedly for comic effect. But like several attempts at glib humour, this one falls flat, too.

With its tone all over the place and its lack of real, biting comedy, Burke and Hare is a disappointing crack at material that offers some rich fruit, if the pickers could only reach them.
Published first in the Sun-Herald

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(UK, 2011)

CAST: Simon Pegg, Andy Serkis, Isla Fisher, Jessica Hynes, Tom Wilkinson, Tim Curry, Ronnie Corbett, Allan Corduner, Jenny Agutter, Christopher Lee

PRODUCER: Barnaby Thompson

DIRECTOR: John Landis

SCRIPT: Piers Ashworth, Nick Moorcroft


EDITOR: Mark everson

MUSIC: Joby Talbot


RUNNING TIME: 91 minutes



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