A decade ago, U.K. shingle Fragile Films resurrected the treasured Ealing Studios brand, and “Burke & Hare” reps their closest attempt yet to match the tone and content of such beloved Ealing classics as “The Ladykillers” (1955). So much for intention. As for achievement, the film struggles to match the original Ealing’s quality benchmark, and its unapologetically old-fashioned sensibility may have trouble connecting with contempo auds. Helmer John Landis’ amiable, creaky comedy about 19th-century corpse retailers Burke and Hare should rattle some funny bones in native Blighty, but may face B.O. graveyards abroad.
In 1828 Edinburgh, Irish immigrants William Burke (Simon Pegg) and William Hare (Andy Serkis) strike it rich when Hare’s elderly tenant dies of natural causes. Learning there’s a ready market for freshly deceased bodies at the laboratory of pioneering anatomist Dr. Robert Knox (Tom Wilkinson), the pair shove the dead man into a herring barrel and wheel him off to collect a rich fee. From there, it’s a slippery slope of moral hazard, as they hasten another aged tenant’s departure via a helpful bout of suffocation, then induce a heart attack in an obese stranger. Burke and Hare have somehow stumbled into the lucrative trade of body-snatching.
Crafting a satisfying comedy celebrating two notorious serial killers certainly qualifies as a writing challenge, so credit goes to co-scripters Piers Ashworth and Nick Moorcroft for devising credibly sympathetic protagonists. Burke is sensibly awarded two redeeming features: his ethical quandary, which he continues to voice right up until the end, and his love for pretty young thesp-prostitute Ginny (Isla Fisher), who needs funds to mount her innovative all-female theater production of “Macbeth.” Hare’s impulse is more straightforwardly avaricious, although his troubled home life — the turnabout in his fortunes revives the spirits, and libido, of his wife (Jessica Hynes) — likewise provides a rooting interest.
Where the script stumbles is in its absence of any especially funny setpieces or memorable lines. Instead, the scribes seem to think a general tone of wry amusement will suffice, with some slapstick thrown in for good measure; at the screening caught, the biggest laughs attended Serkis and Hynes enjoying vigorous sex, plus a nice piece of physical comedy as one intended victim (Brit comedian Paul Whitehouse) survives death by concrete steps. A chamber pot of feces supplies a comedy lowlight, while the sight of bumptious film director Michael Winner (star of an annoying series of TV commercials in the U.K.) being driven off a cliff is a joke that might not travel.
Pegg and Fisher, just about holding up their end of the bargain by delivering the film’s portion of sweet romance, are hardly given anything funny to say. However, Serkis, a late replacement for an ankling David Tennant (TV’s “Doctor Who”), proves a winning presence as the less scrupulous Hare, and Hynes is aces in her limited role.
Casting of the supporting players suggests a keen eye on the domestic market, which should lap up an overly broad turn from veteran comedian Ronnie Corbett (from TV’s “The Two Ronnies”) as unlikely militia officer Capt. McLintoch; overall, the smaller roles earn better-than-they-deserve assists from the likes of Hugh Bonneville, Allan Corduner and David Schofield. Tim Curry struggles manfully with Dr. Monro, a jealous rival of Dr. Knox’s with a penchant for amputating feet.
Edinburgh setting provides an excuse for Joby Talbot’s jaunty Scottish-flavored score. Overall tech credits are pro, with budget on display where needed, such as the extras-packed public hangings that bookend the film. Though “Burke & Hare” hardly reps a return to form for the director of “An American Werewolf In London,” it’s worth remembering that Landis’ last feature directing film credits are “Susan’s Plan” and “Blues Brothers 2000” (both 1998). Viewed through that prism, his latest reps a step back from the brink.