review of “Burke & Hare”

Rating: 3 out of 5

The John Landis who made Trading Places and An American Werewolf in London — let alone Michael Jackson’s Thriller and The Blues Brothers — is a shadow of his former self if this comedy is any guide.

Burke & Hare is an excursion into Ealing comedy territory with a smart cast led by Simon Pegg and Andy Serkis as the two hopeless 19th-century grave-robbers. But it goes for pace and parody rather than wit, abounding with Victorian clichés about grasping anatomical surgeons, drunken dolls, daft soldiers and pompous worthies. The consolation lies in the minor roles.

Tom Wilkinson is appropriately hammy as the Scots surgeon who accepts bodies wherever they come from and thinks he’s a marginally better scientist than God. And Ronnie Corbett, as the Captain of the Guard who inadvertently discovers Burke and Hare’s dastardly deeds, is consistently funny. We expect him to break into song any moment but he never does.

Tim Curry, Allan Corduner, Hugh Bonneville, Isla Fisher and Jessica Hynes struggle to do much more than splutter out their lines as best they can, while other notables appear and disappear in a few seconds, Christopher Lee dying tetchily and Michael Winner deposited over a cliff in the blink of an eye.

The film has been made with little guile, taking the easy way out with slapstick physical comedy rather than making any discernible comment about its times — but, on the credit side, John Mathieson’s cinematography chimes in well with some good costume and production design. If only what we hear was as good as what we see, it might just have caught fire.

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