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Burke and Hare


Stars: Simon Pegg, Andy Serkis, Isla Fisher, Jessica Hynes, Tom Wilkinson, Tim Curry, Ronnie Corbett, Reece Shearsmith, David Schofield, Allan Corduner, Bill Bailey, Hugh Bonneville, Michael Smiley, Christopher Lee

Director: John Landis

The Ealing Studios logo is misleading.

This is broad, brawling and blue comedy light-years removed from such Ealing films as The Titfield Thunderbolt and The Ladykillers. Sophistication and good taste are patently absent – instead screenwriters Piers Ashworth and Nick Moorcroft deliberately go for belly laughs in their farcical but nevertheless effectively dark retelling of the story of the notorious 18th century body-snatchers who turned to murder to maintain a ready supply of corpses for leading medicos in 18th century Edinburgh.

While the production values are eminently more impressive than anything the Thomas-Rogers team ever managed to come up with and the film goes further sexually and scarily than anything the Carry On comedies ever aspired to, Burke and Hare does carry on their comic tradition on a far bigger budget and for more modern moviegoers. Result: a cornucopia of black comedy, some of it crude and rude, some of it cruelly funny (I particularly enjoyed a sharp send up of Greyfriars Bobby) put over with commendable enthusiasm by an enthusiastic cast. Think ‘Carry on Cadaver’ and you won’t go far wrong.

Since it’s patently aimed at moviegoers, not critics, I reckon the rollicking adventures of body snatchers Pegg and Serkis are likely only to appeal to laughter-seeking audiences. And why not, to quote a critical legend? There’s much to enjoy in the lunatic situations and daffy characters (the plotline of an all-female Macbeth mounted by prostitutes calls for being brought to life by a subtext-happy director, preferably with subtitles, instead of being played for laughs) directed with suitable vigour and an occasional nod to Hammer by Landis. He doesn’t strive for historical accuracy – why would he, given the farcical storyline? - but instead settles for wringing the maximum laughs from the frequently lunatic situations and, especially, from his cast.

Pegg and Serkis hit all the right broad comic notes, Fisher and Hynes are fun and it’s hard not to enjoy Corbett’s hearty hamming as a Scottish policeman on the trail of the brazen body snatchers. Curry camps it up rotten as a corrupt doctor, Wilkinson is fine as a posh purchaser of corpses, but adds failing to create a convincing Scottish accent to his record of failing to sound convincing in Cockney or American either. A classy supporting cast features Hammer regular Lee in a nifty cameo and unexpected appearances by special effects giant Ray Harryhausen, Michael Winner (his best work in decades?) and cult director Costa-Gavras.

Landis, who gave us An American Werewolf in London, now gives us ’Irish body snatchers in Edinburgh’. Don’t look for art, look for low laughs. They’re there for the taking.

Alan Frank

UK 2010. UK Distributor: Entertainment . Colour.
91 minutes. Widescreen. UK certificate: 15.

Guidance ratings (out of 3): Sex/nudity 3, Violence/Horror 2, Drugs 0, Swearing 3.

Review date: 26 Oct 2010