Getting by is hard. This adage is so true in the British dark comedy “Burke and Hare” that it drives the titular characters to selling cadavers just to pay the rent. While the “desperate times call for desperate measures” plot is nothing new, the movie manages to deliver laughs.
Set in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1828, two con men up on hard times, William Burke (Simon Pegg, “The Boxtrolls”) and William Hare (Andy Serkis, “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies”), start selling cadavers to the world-renowned doctor Robert Knox (Tom Wilkinson, “Unfinished Business”). When demand exceeds supply, Burke and Hare decide to make their own business.
Thanks to uncharacteristically tight plotting, the gags come in measured style. Every plot-moving conversation is balanced with a gag — a pitch-black gag, at that. Where other modern comedies play out like loosely edited improvisation, “Burke and Hare” builds its running and character gags from right at the beginning, and not a frame afterward is wasted in keeping them fresh and exciting. The movie might have one of the best stair-falling gags ever.
The success is mostly to the immense likability and chemistry of Pegg and Serkis. Injecting sympathy into otherwise unlikable historical characters, the two bounce off of each other like true old friends. Every shared glance induces chuckles because of it.
It helps that the movie has a gleefully dark sense of humor. Where else would a body bent in half or a leg amputation be so funny? For the especially dark-minded, blood spills in torrents, but not a drop is spilled without a snicker accompanying it.
The movie does, however, give itself to unnecessary exposition at the end. It doesn’t improve the story at all — it just makes it longer.
Oddly enough, or perhaps not oddly at all, “Burke and Hare” has a biting satirical edge to it. Capt. McLintock (Ronnie Corbett, “Fierce Creatures”), for example, walks the streets of Edinburgh like a small-town Napoleon without the prowess. In his pursuit of justice, he nearly kills the two trainees with him, blaming them for the mistake later.
Movies, especially comedies, are at their best when the main cast is strong and the supporting cast is stronger. The secondary characters here manage to make as much, if not more, of an impression on the viewer as the main cast. No performance falls short in “Burke and Hare.”
All these gears work together with a mechanistic efficiency, guiding viewers from one laugh to the next. With Pegg and Serkis as guides, the ride proves to be dark and hilarious. Save for some fat at the end, the movie’s plot is lean. At a tight 91 minutes, “Burke and Hare” is a racket worth getting in on.