“Burke and Hare” – (91 minutes, UK, 2010)
Funny story. Two Irish guys, both named William, go to Edinburgh circa 1827 and… Well, “Burke and Hare” tells of William Burke (Simon Pegg) and William Hare (Andy Serkis), scraping by in a city experiencing a sort of Renaissance in scientific studies, particularly medicine. As it happens, two rival surgeons, Doctors Robert Knox (Tom Wilkinson) and Alexander Monro (Tim Curry), are in stiff competition for fresh human meat to dissect.
Watch the trailer here:
Unfortunately, people just don’t die in large enough numbers to satisfy both, and Monro’s semi-legal manoeuvering gives him direct access to whoever Angus the hangman (Bill Bailey) drops through his gallows.
This leaves only rotting corpses for Knox to work with, creating something of a business opportunity…
Once one of Mrs. Hare’s (Jessica Hynes) elderly renters suddenly gives up the ghost, William Hare sees an opportunity: a fresh corpse to sell for doctor Knox’s dissection classes. Their pockets heavier with the 5 ₤ they just “earned”, Hare convinces Burke of launching into a profitable enterprise of purveying Knox with the fresh bodies his research and teachings require.
“Burke and Hare” is another adaptation of the well-known and much filmed accounts of real-life murders committed by the titular characters. A while ago, I reviewed another such adaptation, Glenn McQuaid’s “I sell the dead“, in which the main protagonists were renamed Willie Grimes and Arthur Blake. While “I sell the dead” had a cameo by Angus Scrimm (“Phantasm“), “Burke and Hare” boasts Sir Christopher Lee as a victim, Ronnie Corbett as the militia Captain McLintock and many other familiar faces from British film and television.
The tagline for “I sell the dead” (never trust a corpse) is echoed here by a hilarious line of dialogue spoken by Burke (Pegg) in response to Hare (Sirkis) urging him to go on with their scheme and have faith: “I had faith in a fart once and I shat all over myself!” So yes, it’s that kind of movie: almost anything for a laugh, and there are many.
Watching for cameos can be fun here, with appearances by Jenny Agutter, Ray Harryhausen, Michael Winner and so many others.
Some scenes stand out as individual little sketches showcasing these talents: Monro and his fetish for (amputated) feet, sawing into a screaming patient’s leg with a goofy smile on his face, then averting his eyes as he leans to the side, avoiding the squirt of arterial blood. He looks like one of those dignified war widows employed to restock restrooms with soap and towels decades ago, known in France as madame Pipi, looking away as a gentleman does his “business”…
And Tom Wilkinson as Dr. Knox, suggesting to his assistant to pray for some disaster to strike Edinburgh, a mass calamity which would solve his supply difficulties. While many comedies rely on just two or three funny, typically gross-out gags, “Burke and Hare” is a bit of a throwback: it is consistently funny throughout with many laugh out loud moments. It also taught me a bit of trivia I didn’t know, that “burking” is a word, used to describe the method of smothering a victim, as with a pillow, while compressing the chest.
Come to think of it, isn’t that what cats do..?
“Burke and Hare” gets five beans.