Grave-robbing and murder are not normally present themes in comedies, but they are thrust together in this amiable but underwhelming film. Burke & Hare is a well-made comedy that struggles for laughs but is entertaining nonetheless.
When Dr. Knox (Tom Wilkinson) finds himself in need of more cadavers in order to continue with his teachings on the human anatomy, Williams Burke and Hare (Simon Pegg and Andy Serkis) start up a lucrative arrangement to provide him with a supply of dead bodies. The Irish immigrants initially acquire the bodies by grave-robbing, but when this fails to meet the good doctor’s demands, they resort to murdering people in the back alleyways of 19th century Edinburgh.
Burke & Hare tries to promote itself as a black comedy about heinous crimes, and with John Landis at the helm it nearly worked. However, the problem here is that while it’s a genial and enjoyable affair, there isn’t much in the way of actual comedy. Hardly surprising considering the grim nature of the content, but it could have been an interesting twist on a historical tale.
Sure, it’s a lot of fun watching the wealth of familiar faces show up for the odd scene-stealing turn, but there’s barely a genuine laugh to be had. Paul Whitehouse perhaps gets the only memorable laugh as a drunken would-be victim of the bumbling murderers who simply refuses to die.
With that said, Burke & Hare is not a bad film, it just isn’t particularly remarkable. It’s well-directed, the story trundles along nicely and there are some commendable performances scattered throughout, it all just feels a little underdeveloped. Perhaps a stronger script would have helped because the presentation and execution is perfectly acceptable.
There was potential for a deliciously dark comedy with Tim Burton levels of gothic here, but instead we’ll have to settle for a fun but forgettable film.