The year was 1828, and Edinburgh was enjoying the Scottish Enlightenment, but for many of its citizens, they would be hard pressed to tell the difference with what had gone before. Nevertheless, there was progress being made, especially in the field of medicine where two rival medical schools, one run by Dr Knox (Tom Wilkinson) and the other by Dr Monroe (Tim Curry) staked claims for medical advancement. The main problem was that securing fresh corpses for experimentation was difficult, and Monroe had ensured that he would get most of them, so what was Knox to do?
Turn to those men who the title took its name from in this, a loose adaptation of the infamous case of the graverobbers turned murderers. For some reason, filmmakers found it hard to leave this sordid tale alone, and this Burke and Hare were the umpteenth version of their story, which might have had you wondering what screenwriters Piers Ashworth and Nick Moorcroft could have possibly done to put a fresh spin on events. The answer to that was apparently to turn it into a British variety show, with just about every role filled by a familiar face from the United Kingdom entertainment scene, both old and new.
Appearing as the bad guys were Simon Pegg (as Burke) and Andy Serkis (as Hare), except according to this they may have killed sixteen people for profit, but actually they weren't all that bad. Indeed, here they were shown to be loveable rogues, two Irish scallywags just trying their best to get by in the harsh surroundings of nineteenth century Edinburgh, and far from the coldblooded, opportunistic murderers of history. It was not an entirely unique take on the men, but in this case the aim was to go all out for comedy and downplay the horror aspects that so many before it had emphasised, although there were a handful of gruesome moments, but nothing to get excited about.
You half expected the cast to break out into song, such was the lighthearted, even flippant approach they took to a grim yarn, as if they were finding it impossible to take any of this seriously. With a seasoned comedy director like John Landis at the helm, going for laughs was not such a bad gambit, and many of the performers were best known for their humorous antics both on television and on film, so for star spotters, the range of talent here was impressive. Ronnie Corbett showed up as the head lawman who uncovers the crime and played it surprisingly straightfaced, Jessica Hynes (Pegg's co-star in cult sitcom Spaced) was Hare's wife and outshining her colleagues, and there were the usual array of Landis cameos.
Michael Winner, for example, showed up long enough to be driven over a cliff in his carriage, and Christopher Lee looks to be getting set for a meaty role only to be bumped off within about a minute of appearing. There were tries at excusing the sympathetic treatment of the murderers by comparing them to Shakespeare's Macbeth, mostly in a subplot about Burke's lady friend Ginny taking his money to put on a women only production of the play. Isla Fisher's usual comic touch eluded her here, mainly because of her obvious struggle with the Scottish accent, which was odd because her parents were from there, but for a film that stressed its Caledonian roots there were not that many actors from that part of the U.K. in it (and putting The Proclaimers over the end credits was fooling no one). There were a few good laughs, but the feeling never left it that to make this more satisfying a darker style was really needed; nice try, but too silly to be top notch. Music by Joby Talbot.