Friday, 9 December 2011

Burke and Hare: If you like Simon Pegg, watch!

This film passed completely under my radar, which is normally not a good sign for a film, and John Landis hasn't exactly been pumping out hits over the past few years, but I finally got a hold of, and watched, Burke and Hare, and by God, it is brilliant!

Taking major liberties on the facts and putting a comedic spin on grizzly events, the film tells of Burke (Simon Pegg) and Hare (Andy Serkis), two immigrants in early nineteenth century Edinburgh who murdered and sold the cadavers of their victims to Dr. Knox (Tom Wilkinson), who uses them for dissections in his prestigious medical school. Hare's wife (the indelible Jessica Hynes) gets in on the act (for a small portion of the profits), and Burke gets heavily involved with Ginny Hawkins (Isla Fisher), who uses him to fund her all-woman performance of Macbeth.

As it's based on history, you know how things inevitably turn out, but screw it, this film is not about the end result, but the ride to it.

It's not what it looks like...

All too rarely these days do I find myself laughing out loud to a film, but Burke and Hare did it. The casting is perfect. All the faces are a whose-who of British cinema, with Pegg and Serkis being our lovable gruesome twosome. Pegg is reunited with Jessica Hynes, who he co-starred with in Spaced and Shaun of the Dead, and though they don't share any real screen time together, just the knowledge of them working together again makes me happy in a geeky way. Tom Wilkinson plays a fantastically subtle neurotic Dr. Knox, who just wants to overcome the insurmountable odds of Tim Curry's rival school. Oh yeah, Tim Curry is in the film too, so that is also amazing. Bill Bailey acts as a hangman/narrator to the film, playing up a troll-like shtick, even though I couldn't place him at first without his beard. Sir Christopher Lee even gets in on the action with a small role that will leave you going 'Wait. Was that Christopher Lee?! What the!?'.

Brilliantly shot, fantastically written, joyfully acted, there is nothing about this film not to love. Edinburgh holds a special place in my heart, and it was fantastic to see it become not just the backdrop, but a character in its own right. The film is a brisk hour and a half (or thereabouts) and never for one second goes off track. Too many period films like to dwell on their fancy set work, but Burke and Hare avoids this trap. We know we are seeing beautiful and convincing set pieces, and never once does it feel like it is being forced down our throats. 

It's not what it looks like...

The film takes a very visceral and tragic story (seriously, don't read up on the murders before watching the film) and makes it a romp. There is no over-glorifying violence here. I can't think of any actual portrays of it besides a 'burking' (suffocating someone) and someone having a chamber pot smashed over their head. We know it is all to comic effect. The accidents, the near misses, all too hilarious. Pegg ponders how wrong killing is, while sitting on the face of Sir Christopher. Come on, this is gold! The film is populated with side characters who are invaluable. The militia and the bumbling guards, the 'protection' men, even the greyhound, all these make it a vivid and lively world that you can just sink right in to and smile all the way through, murder be damned.

It's not what it looks like...

There is no moral the film tries to pass off. If you didn't know killing was wrong before seeing this, well, you have bigger issues, my friend. What we get here is a laugh, through and through. All the way through, references to modern technology is made, but as it is only in infancy, it is still being explored (photography being a running gag, and a nice nod to Listerine). Hare and his wife have some very physical sex while discussing the opening of funeral stores... No, sorry, think more up-class. How about parlors? We even end the film with freeze frames for each of the actors, while The Proclaimers' I'm Gonna Be (500 Miles) plays over the top. 

I've never lost faith in John Landis as a director. I know he hasn't exactly delivered the goods cinematically in a long time, with Blues Brothers 2000 forever staining his reputation, but his episodes of Masters of Horror are the stand out episodes of the short-lived series, and he certainly never lost it. Here, even subtle little pieces, like the gangster wearing a tiger-pattern coat, show attention to detail that many lesser directors might miss. Never a man for horror, but more the comedy of it all, he has throughout his career perfected the art of dark laughter, and Burke and Hare is another in a string of successes in the horror-comedy genre. Success, Mr. Landis. Success!

Do yourself a favour: get this film now. It is a pick-me-up in all the right ways. Highly recommended.