Burke and Hare was the Closing Night film for the Dallas International Film Festival in March 2011. I had heard of the film when it was in the production phase and it sounded interesting and funny. The film is based on the true story of Brendan “Dynes” Burke and William Hare who committed a string of murders in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1827-1828. They sold the victims’ dead bodies to medical schools for teaching and dissection. The most avid buyer of the murder victims’ bodies was Dr. Robert Knox. There was not a large supply of cadavers for teaching anatomy back then.
Burke and Hare is a comedy starring Andy Serkis as Hare and Simon Pegg as Burke. Dr. Robert Knox is played by Tom Wilkinson. This telling of the story of Burke and Hare is based on the a true story, except the parts that are not, as director John Landis clearly states at the beginning of the movie. The story begins as a narrated story from the perspective of a hangman (Bill Bailey), who sells the executed to the medical schools. Burke and Hare were con men trying to find some way to make a buck by swindling those who would believe them. They haphazardly came to the realization they could make a buck off dead bodies when a paying tenant of Hare’s boarding house dies. This bright idea leads them to hasten some senior citizens to their deaths and murder a few others.
Simon Pegg and Andy Serkis are the stars of this film. They made a good comedic team that was able to carry some of the over-the-top humor that was required of them. Tom Wilkinson’s role as Dr. Knox was subtle in humor. He was determined to get cadavers that his ignorance of glaring evidence to the contrary of a natural death was priceless (and by glaring evidence, I mean limbs positioned in ways they should never be). The supporting cast was quite varied and surprising. Tim Curry stars as Doctor Munro, the competing physician for cadavers. I do not think I have seen Curry in any major film in a while. Isla Fisher plays Ginny Hawkins, a dancer who is looking for a sugar daddy to fund her dramatic aspirations. It is beside the point that Ginny cannot sing or act. Pegg’s Burke falls head over heels for Ginny, who in the end turns out to be a little haughty with giving out the goods. There are also some good cameos and short parts for noteworthy actors Christopher Lee, Stephen Merchant, and Hugh Bonneville.
Though the facts and history of Burke and Hare is truly disturbing, this film is a comedy through and through. The humor is reminiscent of Monty Python. It is a little over-the-top at times, but that is what makes it funny. I do not know why Burke and Hare has never released in the US. I found the movie humorous, well-played with a tad bit of eccentricity mixed in. I think it would find its audience in the US, especially with Simon Pegg gaining popularity. The film was a great addition and the cherry on top of a great week at the Dallas Film Fest. I would highly recommend seeking Burke and Hare out.
I give Burke and Hare 4 “Hangman’s Nooses” out of 5.