I had the pleasure of watching “Burke and Hare” in a group. When the image faded away and the credits rolled my friend said “Well, that was a movie.” “Burke and Hare” is a rare phenomenon where the events that the film is based on are way more interesting than the film itself. It has everything going for it. Great cast, great director, and a great story, but it is somehow incredibly dull.
“Burke and Hare” is about the real life murderers William Burke (Simon Pegg) and William Hare (Andy Serkis) discovering a new career venture in selling fresh corpses for medical research. Theyʼre selling these recently murdered bodies to the morally ambiguous Doctor Robert Knox (Tom Wilkinson). While all this murdering is taking place, Burke is independently financing an all female cast of Macbeth for he has an eye for a young thespian named Ginny Hawkins (Isla Fisher). Through my five minutes of research I can safely say that Ginny Hawkins is a fictitious character.
This is marketed as a dark comedy and itʼs true to its word. Itʼs a jokey and slapstick brand of humor that would seem to couple fairly well with the story. This could have easily been a drama, thriller, or horror film. It went the comedy route, and when I heard about its production, I was ecstatic. John Landis returns to direct his first feature film in 12 years, a fantastic British cast, an interesting historical tale, and a non-CGI Andy Serkis. What went wrong? Iʼm not sure. It seems to be a well made movie. Tom Wilkinson doesnʼt pull any punches, Simon Pegg is fun, and Andy Serkis is just as good an actor in his own skin. The cinematography and production design for turn of the century Edinburgh is gorgeous.
The film does go out of its way to make you like Burke and Hare. They are murderers, and no matter how charming they seem or how financially burdened they are you wonʼt forget that. Burke and Hare donʼt seem to be the murdering type and their circumstances donʼt seem so dire that they need to start murdering for cash. They seem like pleasant rational folks instead of insane morally corrupt folks or sane folks that find themselves in the need to kill for money. Without a cohesive reason for their dastardly deeds, thereʼs little interest in the rest of the film. Movies have proven that you can have deplorable leads and still have a captivating film. “There Will Be Blood”, “Bad Santa”, and “Bronson” all have fairly evil protagonists and are all good films in their own right.
It seems like they took a dark idea and then played that idea as safe as possible. Thereʼs no point in this film where I felt like Iʼve witnessed something delightfully wicked. It happens, but it doesnʼt feel like it. Watch “Worldʼs Greatest Dad” directed by Bobcat Goldthwait with Robin Williams. That movie is funny throughout, but it understands how to compose scenes that have dark undertones. Or “Super” with Rainn Wilson. You can watch both of these films and know that youʼve watched a black comedy. They are dark and unrelenting but can still find a way to fit in a punch line.
This is not a bad movie, not by any means. I chuckled a few times, and it was nice seeing these actors play off each other. “Burke and Hare” is just so painfully okay that Iʼm not sure who to recommend it to. Itʼs so hard to recommend this film that the only purpose of this sentence to fulfill the 600 word review requirement.