Thursday, October 27, 2016

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #10: Burke & Hare

It’s not John Wayne or James Stewart or Lee Marvin or even Edmond O’Brien who gets the key line in John Ford’s ‘The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance’ – it’s Carleton Young as Maxwell Scott: “When the truth becomes legend, print the legend.”

In John Landis’s ‘Burke & Hare’, it’s a more a case of: “Is there even much of a legend anyway? Fuck it, just print any old bollocks.”

And so it is that we have Simon Pegg and Andy Serkis as Williams Burke and Hare – the latter cast after David Tennant dropped out, and I can’t help but wonder what it would have been like with Pegg and Tennant trading quips and making mayhem (Serkis gives a by-the-numbers performance, mugging through his scenes as if fully aware that he was the second choice) – two ne’er-do-wells trying make it rich in 1820s Edinburgh. The rivalry between anatomists Dr Robert Knox (Tom Wilkinson) and Professor Alexander Monro (Tim Curry) is turning nasty.

When Monro uses forged documentation to ensure that the bodies of any hanged in the city are delivered immediately to him for dissection – and with the militia patrolling cemeteries to discourage grave-robbers – Knox makes no bones, pardon the pun, about accepting corpses that have been, how to put this, encouraged along the way to meeting their maker.

‘Burke & Hare’ was produced through the then newly revived Ealing Studios and Landis has said in interview that he wanted to capture the spirit of classic black comedies such as ‘Kind Hearts and Coronets’ or ‘The Ladykillers’. And there’s no doubt that the material lends itself to a certain kind of mordant humour. But whereas ‘Kind Hearts and Coronets’ was elegant in its multiple murders and social satire, and ‘The Ladykillers’ played out as essentially a comedy of manners with bumbling thugs, Landis struggles to find – and indeed sustain – a tone for ‘Burke & Hare’. Some scenes are pure slapstick; some trade in humour so dark (such as the pair’s attempt to force a horse-drawn carriage off the road) that the punchline just withers and dies; and some are mawkish, particularly in matters pertaining to Burke’s infatuation with ambitious musical hall actress Ginny (Isla Fisher), an entirely fictionalised subplot which goes nowhere despite Fisher’s wholehearted performance.

Ultimately, Landis shores up the whole edifice with a parade of famous, and sometimes incongruous, faces: Christopher Lee and Jenny Agutter in nothing roles, Hugh Bonneville as an aristocrat with an agenda, Bill Bailey as a fourth-wall-breaking hangman, fellow directors Michael Winner and Costa-Gavras (I can only assume they visited the set and found themselves bundled into costumes), and Ronnie Corbert as the most unconvincing leader of a troop of militia in the entire history of moving pictures.

‘Burke & Hare’ could have been a taut and fast-paced piece of work with darkly comedic overtones; as it is, it kind of ambles along with the amiability of a shaggy dog story, enjoyable enough in an undemanding way while you’re watching, but leaving you feeling just a tad short-changed as the end credits roll.

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