Ever since it was announced, one of the films I’ve been looking forward to the most has been Bill, mainly due to the cast and creative team behind it, that being the people responsible for the Horrible Histories TV series and Yonderland. Whilst I didn’t really get into Yonderland, Horrible Histories is one of the best comedy TV shows made in recent years, a great combination of history, music, terrible puns, toilet humour and slapstick and the brilliance of this show has led me to call the team this generations Monty Python on numerous occasions, and if this team is the modern day Monty Python, then Bill is their Holy Grail. Whilst I had some worries due to the numerous delays in its release, the film is finally out and it fully lives up to the skill of this team.
The film focuses on a young William Shakespeare, before he became famous, who, after being kicked out of a lute band, decides to move to London to become a playwright, making contact with Christopher Marlowe. However, plays aren’t being performed due to the plague and Shakespeare and Marlowe resort to dressing up as vegetables to make ends meat (pun intended). At the same time, King Phillip II of Spain hatches a plot to kill Queen Elizabeth I and needs a play to enact his plan and Shakespeare is the one they decide to use to write the play. The mark of any great comedy is the ability to make me laugh and I’m happy to report that Bill very much succeeds in that regard, mainly due to how silly the whole thing gets. Whilst writers/stars Lawrence Rickard and Ben Willbond put in enough jokes related to the works of Shakespeare and Marlowe, along with plenty of historical references, it is when they decide to let loose with the silliness that the comedy really takes off. The film owes more to pantomime than it does to the works of Shakespeare and that style works to the advantage of the film. There are plenty of toilet humour jokes, anachronistic jokes and so bad they’re brilliant puns that for every joke that doesn’t quite work, there are 2 that land. There were numerous times whilst watching the film where I was nearly floored because I was bent over laughing so hard. Even with the jokes, the film has a surprising amount of heart, mainly in relation to Shakespeare. Whilst he starts off struggling and not really knowing how to write a play, with the help of Marlowe, Shakespeare is able to fine tune his style to create masterworks, with many of Shakespeare’s sonnets and speeches from his plays being quoted throughout the film after he starts working with Marlowe. In this way, the film shows the importance of perseverance in the arts and the need for encouragement. The film makes it clear that, if it weren’t for Marlowe’s encouragement and his own perseverance and heart, Shakespeare wouldn’t have written a single word and this message of perseverance is especially prominent now in an age where the current Conservative government doesn’t want people to be committed to the arts and is cutting funding and ending the encouragement of people’s artistic style. That’s not to say the message fully works, with this mainly being due to the plot. At some points in the film, the plot developments feel a bit forced and I feel the film needed to be a little bit longer and spend more time on these plot points rather than constantly going back to King Phillip. That said, when the plot and the jokes come together, comedic greatness comes through.
The cast of the film create the most parallels to Monty Python in this film (along with a joke that feels like a deliberate shout out to Holy Grail) with the core 6 cast members playing multiple characters. For the purpose on time I’ll be focusing on the main roles that each of the characters play, but I have to say that the cast shine in the smaller roles they have and these roles often provide the best laughs in the film. Mathew Baynton makes for one of the best screen portrayals of Shakespeare I’ve seen. From the start he lets us know that Shakespeare is a bit of an outsider and a rebel, along with showing a great deal of enthusiasm and pride for his writings which helps drive his increasing skill throughout the film and he always lets us know the intelligence Shakespeare has underneath and his skill with words which would manifest in a number of important phrases first introduced by Shakespeare (See here and here for some of them). Jim Howick meanwhile is great as Christopher Marlowe, brilliantly showing the trouble writers had at the time, being devastated that his works cannot be performed due to the plague and that has led to cynicism developing in him to the point where he doesn’t think any play can be performed and it’s through Shakespeare that he’s able to overcome this view. Howick also gets some great laughs from both the dressing up as vegetables bit and some of the developments for the character near the end of the film but it’s in the more heartfelt scenes that he shines.
Simon Farnaby meanwhile gets some of the best laughs in the film as the Earl of
Crawley Croydon, one of the lesser members of Queen Elizabeth’s court. He’s hilarious showing the cowardly, preening, egotistical nature of the character, trying to get into the crowd so people actually know that he’s the Earl of Croydon and the scenes of him with King Phillip are some of the funniest in the film. Speaking of which, Ben Willbond is hilarious as King Phillip. Whilst his accent is incredibly dodgy, it feels completely intentional and adds to the silly comedic charm of the film. The whole overt machismo aspect of the character is played for laughs brilliantly but Willbond also shows that Phillip can be a real threat at points. His performance also leads to some of the best running gags in the film which I won’t spoil here. Lawrence Rickard meanwhile gives one of the more offbeat performances in the film as Sir Francis Walsingham, portraying him as a master of disguise so good that he was able to successfully fake his death at an open casket funeral. Rickard always keeps you aware of the skill and intelligence of Walsingham with the comedy being mined from the absurd lengths he goes to for his disguises, including as a body in a cart of plague victims and his performance is the most Python-esque in the film. Out of the core group, the one that is served the weakest is Marth Howe-Douglas. Whilst her performance as Anne Hathaway is good, showing the support she has for Shakespeare mixed with concern for whether he’ll succeed, the writing for the character isn’t always that strong and comes across a bit cliched at times.
In terms of the other cast members, Helen McCrory is a lot of fun as Queen Elizabeth, playing the character more in the vein of Miranda Richardson in Blackadder, mainly the obsession with executions and the constant mood swings she has for comedic effect. The make-up for McCrory is great as well, fitting in a bit more with the historical descriptions of Queen Elizabeth than the traditional depiction of her, with the incredibly crooked teeth that look a bit burned being the most striking feature. Damian Lewis meanwhile is fun in his brief appearance as Sir Richard Hawkins, but the film forgets about him after his first appearance, but this is a rare case where I won’t complain as that is the whole joke surrounding his appearance in the film. I will give that complaint to the brief appearances of Richard Glover and Justin Edwards, who I felt were wasted in the film.
On a technical level the film is very impressive for the limited budget. There is a great use of locations, mainly for the Royal Court of Queen Elizabeth which creates a very grandiose vibe that fits those scenes, along with the area used for the London streets being a pretty faithful recreation, plus, it was great to see The Globe in this film, even if it was just for a short while. The costume design also does a great job at capturing the time period, with the costumes for Queen Elizabeth and the Earl of
Crawley Croydon standing out. The music meanwhile deserves special mention. Whilst the score for the film is great, it’s the song written for the film that is going to be discussed here. One of the staples of Horrible Histories is the song in each episode, taking a well known song and adapting the lyrics to fit a historical theme, often filled with brilliantly terrible puns, and I’m happy to say that Bill continues that tradition. Whilst the song here isn’t a parody of a well known song, it fits the overall tone of the film perfectly and perfectly sums up all the jokes and references to Shakespeare’s plays in the film, with the song being a retelling of The Comedy of Errors (which is the work most often mentioned in the film) adding to the humourous way the film plays fast and loose with historical events.
Overall, whilst there are some elements in the plot and the writing of some of the characters that prevent it from being a true great, Bill succeeds in the most important area: it made me laugh. The game nature of the cast, combined with the brilliant variety of jokes that will appeal to any age, makes for some of the funniest moments I’ve seen in a film this year, with the films complete disregard for history adding to hilarious charm of the film. If this first film from this team is any indication, my statement at the start of this review that this team are the modern day Monty Python is well and truly apt.
My Rating: 4/5