Film Review: Burke and Hare

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Burke and Hare, * General release from Friday

&#149 Simon Pegg and Andy Serkis star

OPENING with the ominous warning that "The events in this film are true, except the bits that are not," director John Landis' take on the story of Edinburgh's most notorious murderers, the eponymous Burke and Hare, arrives in cinemas just in time for Hallowe'en.

Determined to assess the film's historical accuracy, I enlisted the help of Burke and Hare Murder Tour guide Stuart Nicoll, the man who took Landis on a trip around Edinburgh's Old Town in late 2009 as he scouted for locations.

We're introduced to William Burke (Simon Pegg) and William Hare (Andy Serkis) in 1828 Edinburgh, a pair of chirpy Irish immigrants working as confidence tricksters, though Stuart notes that "Burke was a cobbler while Hare was a navvy on the Union Canal".

Poverty may have been the main catalyst for the real Burke and Hare, but here it's the former's love for Ginny (Isla Fisher) which inspires the film's crime spree. "There was no Ginny, Burke had a partner called Helen McDougall, from Falkirk," adds Stuart. "The motivation for Burke wasn't love - they regularly beat their wives."

Burke and Hare killed 16 people in total, "some of the most horrific murders in the history of our country," according to Stuart, but here they're very much played for laughs.

With the medical establishment of the day, led by the ever-reliable Tom Wilkinson as Dr Robert Knox and Tim Curry as his rival, paying 5 per corpse, the film accurately depicts the reason the killers continued on their mission, though the audience are constantly beaten over the head with this fact.

Appearances from some of the cream of British comedy, including Paul Whitehouse, Steven Merchant and even Ronnie Corbett, plus a bizarre cameo from Michael Winner, add to the feeling that this is Carry on Graverobbing by another name.

Speaking of cameos, Edinburgh herself is hardly seen here, a few quick shots of the castle slotted into sequences filmed in England.

Rather than offering audiences a smart and stinging satire, Landis' decision to fictionalise so much of the story means that the myths created by the authorities in 19th century Edinburgh, following the fall-out from the trial (which is absent here), are about to be presented to a new generation.

"The real story is a far more compelling one," says Stuart. "It's one of love, greed, violence and the complete moral corruption of a town and the medical establishment."

Whether or not you're interested in how much of this version is fiction, the fact remains that this joyless and morally suspect effort can lay claim to being the biggest cinematic misfire of the year.