Ealing Studios is a legend in the British film industry. Only Pinewood and perhaps Hammer are as recognisable names. Home to some of the greatest British film ever made, their heyday was the post-war period that saw the likes of Passport to Pimlico, Whisky Galore!, The Man in the White Suit, The Ladykillers and my personal favourite The Lavender Hill Mob. Following that golden age, they dropped from prominence but continued to produce films, documentaries and television. In more recent times, they hit big with Notting Hill and Shaun of the Dead and have recently revived the St. Trinian’s films successfully. Following that theme of resurrection, we get to the latest Ealing production: Burke and Hare; which heralds the return to the big screen of 80’s superstar director John Landis.
Landis was at his peak in the 1980’s. Movies like The Blues Brothers, Animal House, An American Werewolf in London and Trading Places were all his work. He’s not a director that I personally rate highly, but his influence and legacy over this period is undeniable. However, the 90’s resulted in a dramatic drop in output, with his only notable films being Blues Brothers 2000 and Susan’s Plan (in 1989) and Beverly Hills Cop III (which I’m guessing he did for a bet. Or the cheque. Or both) Since then, nothing. Plenty of television work and music videos, but no big screen outings at all during the naughties. Now we’re in to the .. erm… tennies , teeners(?), he makes his return with this witty and entertaining throwback.
Burke and Hare is the true story (“apart from the bits they made up”) of two 19th century layabouts/conmen scratching out a pauper’s living in Edinburgh. Of Irish decent, the pair arrived in the Scottish city in search of work some time ago, but are now struggling to make ends meet. Both can fall back on the good graces of Hare’s wife Lucky, who runs a boarding house. However, their fortunes change dramatically when an old lodger of said boarding house passes away and they discover the local medical schools will pay a pretty penny for dead bodies to use in teaching anatomy; and are none-too-picky about the original cause of death. An initial attempt at grave robbing proves fruitless, so Burke and Hare soon find themselves in the murdering business, in which there are significant profits to be had. Profits which soon bring them under the gaze of the local underworld, but also introduce them to a much higher social class.
It’s in this higher society that Burke meets Ginny, aspiring actress and chief love interest for the film. Ginny plans to put on an all-female production of Macbeth, which requires a lot of money. Money that Burke is more than happy to provide, in order to get close to Ginny. The central story of Hare’s increasingly violent attempts to “secure product”, Burke’s reluctant involvement and their run-ins with both the official and unofficial enforcers are both dark and funny – true hallmarks of a classic Ealing film. The side story of Burke’s romance however, is a much weaker plot strand and it drags things to a screeching halt, especially the bizarre sections about organising and rehearsing the play. It’s a shame, as these parts badly interrupt what was, up until that point, an entertaining central narrative. Fortunately, things pull together for the final quarter of the film, but I never quite got back into the full swing of things after that diversion.
The two central characters are played by Simon Pegg and Andy Serkis. Pegg is playing to type as the nerdy everyman Burke (did they really have nerds in the 19th century?), and in a way Serkis is as well, as the slightly grubby, more devious Hare but he’s the much better actor and gets away with it. Apparently he replaced David Tennant just before filming began – it would have been interesting to see Tennant in the Hare role, which is much more the schemer, planting the ideas in Burke’s head. I wonder if this was how the part was originally written or if Hare was made a more dubious character when Serkis was cast, playing to his strengths? Ginny is portrayed by Isla Fisher. She does surprisingly well in her role and I enjoyed her performance, if not the plot cul-de-sacs that her character dragged the narrative into.
Another hallmark of a great Ealing film is an amazing cast, and here Burke and Hare does the tradition proud. Every single speaking role, large or small, seems to be filled with a famous name (at least to British audiences). From old stalwarts like Christopher Lee and Jenny Agutter to modern comedians such as Bill Bailey, Stephen Merchant, Jessica Hynes and Reece Shearsmith, every single part is recognisable – It’s a miracle (and a blessing) that Ricky Gervais wasn’t in it. Tom Wilkinson is excellent as Dr Knox, the teaching head, willing to pay any price to further the advances of science. As is Tim Curry, who as Knox’s bitter rival is wonderfully malevolent and has easily the funniest gag in the entire film. But perhaps the true standout is Ronnie Corbett, playing the chief of the Militia; Captain McLintock. Corbett’s genius, or genius direction, is to play the role perfectly straight whilst all around him are in on the joke. It’s a wonderful performance which appears initially to be a short cameo (pun intended) but is particularly significant (and welcome) in the latter half of the film.
Burke and Hare is a real throwback to the Ealing comedies of old. Having now seen the film it doesn’t surprise me that modern marketing departments had no idea how to sell it, resulting in the very poor trailers we saw pre-release. It successfully re-finds that world only Ealing studios seems to know about – the one which shows a time and a place that never existed, yet fills it so vividly with detail and interest that you swear it did. Where a horrible agonising death could be round any corner, yet you feel perfectly safe spending time with any of a whole host of fascinating characters. Sure, it loses its way somewhat and should never be mentioned in the pantheon of Ealing classics, but it’s another sign that one of the old English studios can still play to some of the strengths that made them great. With Hammer returning to film production this year, perhaps a resurgence of classic English films is on the way. I for one, hope so, as Burke and Hare is thoroughly old fashioned, and all the better for it.