Simon Pegg and Andy Serkis play William Burke and William Hare, Irish immigrants to Edinburgh who turn to body-snatching when other enterprises dry up. As the presence of two such likeable actors might suggest, Burke and Hare aren’t the villains here, just hapless ne’er-do-wells desperate for cash. The real bad guys are, well, just about everyone else: Tom Wilkinson and Tim Curry as devious doctors, Hugh Bonneville as the sleazy surgeon general and David Hayman as cut-throat gangster MacTavish.
And it’s this rogue’s gallery of homegrown comedy and character acting talent which makes ‘Burke and Hare’ the pleasure it is: Pegg and Serkis are relaxed and likeable in the leads, Wilkinson and Curry hissable as their adversaries, and there’s sterling support from five decades of familiar comedy and classic horror faces: Christopher Lee, Jenny Agutter, Bill Bailey, Reece Shearsmith, Jessica Hynes, Stephen Merchant. The gold star goes to Ronnie Corbett’s impeccably infuriated turn as short-arse militia captain McLintock, though a single-scene cameo from Paul Whitehouse as a tuneless inebriate runs him close.
The one bum note is struck by Isla Fisher as Burke’s would-be girlfriend Ginny, but it’s hardly her fault: her Scots accent just about holds to the end of the movie, but her part feels awkwardly bolted on to provide romantic interest and sexual frisson. It doesn’t work: when the rest of the plot concerns dastardly deeds done down dark alleys, the sight of Pegg and Fisher making eyes at one another feels clumsy and inappropriate.
Landis directs like an old pro, cluttering the screen with intriguing little details (surgical tools, scientific equipment, body parts) and displaying a nice line in absurdist comic asides. The humour may be too broad in places – corpse-based slapstick pales with repetition – but, for the most part, ‘Burke and Hare’ is well-timed and often funny. Whether we ought to be laughing at this sort of thing is another matter, and reading into the actual facts of the case (most of the victims were women, Hare shopped Burke to save his own skin) does leave the movie feeling slightly vulgar and tasteless – but doesn’t prevent it from being highly entertaining.