Burke and Hare

Based on the true story of two 19th-century Edinburgh grave robbers, this black comedy from John Landis has a few great moments but many missed opportunities.

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Director: John Landis
Starring: Simon Pegg, Andy Serkis, Isla Fisher, Jessica Hynes and Tom Wilkinson

Notorious real-life criminals later immortalised as gothic monsters on page, stage and screen, William Burke and William Hare scandalised early 19th-century Edinburgh by committing a string of grave robberies and grisly murders in a moneymaking scheme to supply fresh corpses to the Scottish capital's medical schools.

As portrayed by Pegg and Serkis in this polished but underpowered black comedy, the first film in 12 years from the Hollywood director John Landis, Burke and Hare are cheeky Irish rogues motivated as much by love as by greed. Partly shot in London's recently reactivated Ealing Studios, and aiming for the same darkly comic tone as Ealing classics such as The Ladykillers, it is difficult to pinpoint precisely why Burke and Hare misses the target. It is clearly full of quality ingredients, from charismatic stars to painterly cinematography.

The support cast is also peppered with classy screen veterans and audience-nudging cameos including Tom Wilkinson, Ronnie Corbett, Christopher Lee, the stop-motion animation legend Ray Harryhausen and the film director Michael Winner. Jenny Agutter, who last worked with Landis on An American Werewolf in London 30 years ago, also makes a brief appearance.

Pegg and Serkis both give decent performances, complete with accurate Northern Irish accents but, sadly, Burke and Hare remain thinly drawn caricatures throughout, so viewers will struggle to sympathise with their anti-heroic antics. Ultimately, this is where most fault for the film's failure lies: the script by Piers Ashworth and Nick Moorcroft - which repeatedly opts for clumsy slapstick over-sharp wit - sweetened and rewrote real events just enough to render them toothless, but not enough to give them real gothic intensity, like Tim Burton's Sweeney Todd. Landis must also take some blame for pedestrian direction that drains much of this fascinating story's rich potential for high drama and biting comedy. A few great moments, but mostly a missed opportunity.