EXPECTATIONS: John Landis has been away from the world of movies for a while, for reasons I'd rather not go into, so his return has been heralded with an overwhelming sense of boredom. Trailers for Burke and Hare make it look like a series of bad jokes, delivered by a bunch of English actors playing Scottish and Irish characters, all trying far too hard to be funny. I really hope it can overcome all that and be a return to form for Landis, but my hopes aren't high.
REALITY: Burke and Hare was a surprise blast from the past of British comedy. Set in the 18th century, made in 2010 and belonging some time in the mid-1970s, it feels like a relic of the golden age of comedy heroes. It's filled with famous faces, old jokes delivered brilliantly and a general sense of old-school tomfoolery.
The titular Burke (Simon Pegg) and Hare (Andy Serkis) are a pair of down-on-their-luck Irish con men trying to scrape together a living in Victorian Edinburgh. When Mrs. Hare (Jessica Hynes) complains that one of their lodgers has died, the pair makes a few quid by selling the body to Dr. Knox (Tom Wilkinson) in order to aid his research, which is being hindered by a Royal order that all newly executed cadavers are to be delivered solely to Dr. Monroe (Tim Curry) for the furtherment of his foot obsession. When their new business venture turns to grave-robbing and eventually murder, they attract the attention of local thug Danny McTavish (David Hayman) and overzealous Militia Captain McLintock (Robbie Corbett).
If you're going to point out the historical inaccuracies of this film then you'll be at it for a while.
Everything is surprisingly light-hearted and jovial for a story about two serial killers, mostly because the characters maintain an endearing charm throughout. Bumbling their way through elaborate murder schemes and motivated by love, they never seem like evil people at work, simply misguided silly Billies. As the duo gains wealth and starts to mix in more respectable social circles, Burke meets and falls in love with Ginny (Isla Fisher), a young, hopeful actress dreaming of putting on an all-female production of MacBeth. It forms a nice emotional backbone for the narrative and keeps Burke at the centre of the audience's affection.
As funny and heartwarming as everything may be, that isn't what makes Burke and Hare special. What makes it special is going to take some level of explanation, given that I assume most of my readers are American and therefore have no idea who Ronnie Corbett is. Ronnie Corbett can best be described a legend of British comedy, famed for his diminutive stature and character-based performances. His presence in this film firmly cements it as the old-fashioned comedy it truly is. Burke and Hare would have felt quite at home in the 1970s, when churning out old jokes with gleeful aplomb was a guaranteed crowd-pleaser. I can't imagine it will fare particularly well at the box office even here in Britain, let alone in America where Corbett is a complete unknown.
That brings me to the rest of the cast. As I mentioned earlier, they are largely English, playing Scottish and Irish. Pegg's accent is terrible, even worse than the one he employed for Star Trek. I think the best way to describe it is to say that he wears it very loosely, egging it up for laughs when appropriate. Conversely, Serkis does a fine job with his accent. It's like teaming a proper actor up with a comedian and expecting the same from both of them. In fact, that's very literally what it is. Tom Wilkinson is a real standout, but then he's great in everything, even Black Knight.
The film is also peppered with surprising cameos, the most notable of which is Sir Christopher Lee as the duo's first real victim Old Joe. In his brief screen time, he does more acting than has been required of him for many years, rambling incessantly in a deep Scots brogue with tales of the glory days. Further cameos include Bill Bailey as the hangman who introduces the tale, Stephen Merchant as a foot-fixated footman and Reese Shearsmith as McLintock's lieutenant. All of the above are big names in this neck of the woods. It's like the British equivalent of what Landis did with The Blues Brothers; getting absolutely everyone involved at every opportunity.
There's little else to say here other than to recommend Burke and Hare even though you'll probably ignore me and watch an actual horror film instead, or maybe catch Buried if it's still playing and you fancy a black comedy with a bit more bite. It's all very amusing and whimsical and slight and it won't really stay with you beyond a few laughs, but at least it won't literally kill you like Saw 3D did me.
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