Burke and Hare (2010) – Movie Review

Burke and Hare (2010) – Movie ReviewBurke and Hare (2010)  is a grisly comedy starring Andy Serkis and Simon Pegg, set in 1820s Edinburgh.  Based on a true story, Burke and Hare follows the exploits of two Irish immigrants, William Burke (Simon Pegg) and William Hare (Andy Serkis) who find a lucrative business in selling corpses to medical researchers. Supply starts to outweigh demand and Burke and Hare are forced to find other, somewhat gruesome means of acquiring their bodies.

The real story of the Burke and Hare Murders (also known as The West Port Murders)  is more or less the same situation. Two Irishmen fall on tough times, and are convicted and hanged for both killing their victims (their strangling technique come to be known as Burking, as referenced in the film) and grave robbing, selling 17 corpses to Dr Robert Knox, an anatomy professor at Edinburgh Medical College. Knox is portrayed marvellously in the film by British veteran actor, Tom Wilkinson. The murders were assisted by Hare’s mistress, Helen McDougal,  represented in the film as Hare’s wife, Lucky (Jessica Hynes).

This is the second time the Burke and Hare Murders have been given the film treatment, the first in 1971 with a horror directed by Vernon Sewell and starring Derren Nesbitt and Glynn Edwards. This 2010 version, directed by John Landis (The Blues Brothers (1980); Animal House (1978)), his first film in fourteen years, takes a more comedic route, with the true nastiness of the situation obscured beneath a story of two likeable fellows just trying to make a living, and sort out their love lives along the way.

For this great story material, a visually accomplished reimagining of the filth of 19th century Edinburgh, and a fantastic core and supporting cast that includes supporting roles by Tim Curry and Isla Fisher, and cameos by Bill Bailey, Christopher Lee, Ronnie Corbett and Ray Harryhausen, there’s something that just falls flat with Burke and Hare.  And this is a huge shame – it should have been and absolutely could have been much better.

The film seemed to be playing its horror too safe, perhaps not wanting to lord too much respect onto a pair of murdering grave robbers, and ultimately lacking the squeamish punch a good black comedy should have. The subject of corpse acquisition for financial gain has been done a few times before – Just Buried (2007) was an amusing example – and while the real life background does give Burke and Hare a uniqueness, it’s just not a great movie.

There are a few chuckles, but not nearly enough as would be expected from this cast and crew, and the whole side story of Burke’s love interest,  and her all female production of Macbeth is yes, a motivation for Burke, but comes off as a needless distraction. We came here to see murders, and laugh at them, not theatre. At the end, there’s not nearly enough murderousness for such a body count, not nearly enough laughs and Burke and Hare falls victim to its high expectations.


Kate Krake

Kate Krake (aka Kate Murphy) is a writer with a long established passion for all realms of popular culture. She lives in Brisbane, Australia. Find out more on Kate's Blog.