Burke and Hare – review by Delilah des Anges

4 November 2010

Hello, I’m not Melanie, I’m Melanie’s “go and see Burke & Hare, I don’t like the look of it but this blog needs a review of it” lackey, Delilah.

Well, more fool Melanie, and I mean that in the sense that I’m sure she’ll be kicking herself when she realises she missed the chance to … oh, right. It’s still in the cinemas.

Burke & Hare, the somewhat tweaked tale of the graverobbers-turned-serial-killers supplying the medical colleges of Edinburgh during the Englightenment, is a surprisingly endearing, compact little very dark comedy and who’s who of a certain section of the British acting establishment.

It’s hard to know how to describe the style exactly, beyond “black slapstick”; given the subject material there was little chance of avoiding a lot of murder and corpse-related humour, and somehow the film renders a series of smotherings, bludgeonings, and induced heart-attacks childishly hilarious. Perhaps it’s best to leave the details of the very literal gallows-humour for the film itself to explain, but be warned – some sections are quite graphic.

Isla Fisher does a worryingly convincing turn as a (not very good) young actress trying to secure funding for the first ever all-female production of Macbeth, and the mandatory romantic subplot veers between excruciating teasing and being actually quite sweet, withouth ever becoming saccharine, although I confess there were one or two moments of cringing on my part.

Far more adorable from the romantic perspective were Mr and Mrs Hare (Andy Serkis and the scene-stealingly magnificent Jessica Hynes), scheming and dreaming with only the smallest morsel of remorse, and apparently rather, ahem … excited … by the prospect of sudden riches.

Of course Burke and Hare run into difficulties, from the militia (headed by Ronnie Corbett and featuring a uniformed and surprisingly dashing Reece Shearsmith from The League of Gentlemen), and from the local organised crime gangs; further up the scale, their buyer, Dr Knox (played with as much dignity as one can by Tom Wilkinson) is engaged in a ferocious rivalry with Tim Curry’s smarmy and self-satisfied Dr Munroe over royal recognition of their work.

The whole thing is rather beautifully-filmed and mercifully free of almost any traces of CGI or the current blight on cinema, bloody 3-D, and it is dripping with cameos: Jenny Agutter, Paul Whitehouse, Christopher Lee, and even the great Ray Harryhausen gets a momentary look-in.

As bleak as the subject matter is, the moments of deep philosophising are few and the moments of gruesome humour are many, and preventing anything from becoming to poignant is Bill Bailey the hangman narrating the entire thing and ending it with a grimly jaunty little amoral-morale. And if that sounds like a contradiction, well, wait until you see the film.

Delilah Des Anges is a “freelance” (ie, “impoverished”) typesetter & editor currently studying Music Technology; she recently published her first novel, Pass the Parcel.