2015 brought us two of the finest Shakespearean films in the history of cinema. One of them was a visually-stunning and violent adaptation of Macbeth, starring Michael Fassbender. It was one of the darkest Shakespeare adaptations yet, and was often harrowing in its portrayal of murder and madness. And then we have the other Shakespeare film of 2015…the one with the fart jokes. Yes, the Horrible Histories team gave us Bill.
Out now on DVD, Bill focuses on William Shakespeare’s ‘lost years’ – the period, mysterious to scholars, in which he rose from obscurity in Stratford-Upon-Avon to fame in London. The film suggests ‘Bill’ Shakespeare (Mathew Baynton) was a failed musician who left his home to pursue his dream of becoming a writer, but after one thing led to another, he found himself caught up in King Philip II of Spain’s plot to assassinate Queen Elizabeth I. The plot is all rather bonkers with some incredibly bizarre humour throughout, particularly from Sir Francis Walsingham (Laurence Rickard) who completely steals the show. While the Horrible Histories series is largely accurate in its facts, Bill was able to take a few liberties with history thanks to taking part in a largely unwritten period of Shakespeare’s life. Former HH co-stars Rickard and Ben Willbond wrote Bill, as well as performing in the film. Rickard said in an interview that "the joy of the "lost years" is we can tell a fun story without trampling on the facts - it gives us licence to take William Shakespeare on a truly ridiculous caper, yet end with him becoming the man the world knows."
The cast of Bill are all brilliant, and in the style of Horrible Histories and the Monty Python films, all play several characters each. The acting troupe at the heart of the film consists of six members – Baynton, Willbond, Rickard, Jim Howick, Simon Farnaby and Matha Howe-Douglas; together they play 40 roles, some real historical figures and some crazy characters. Each of the members have a chance to shine and take part in utter idiocy, with special praise to Baynton who plays Bill largely straight while being surrounded by complete madness. It is the crazy, irreverent humour that makes Bill stand out in today’s painfully crowded comedy genre, and it is this that will make or break the film for you. Despite being that all-too-rare family-friendly comedy film, Bill has a lot to like for all ages. There are a lot of historical references here for the more educated viewers, while children will delight in the fart jokes and slapstick humour. And if you’re the sort of person who hasn’t yet grown out of such childish, infantile and often bizarre humour – you’re my kind of person. Oh, and you’ll love Bill.
Not that you care with a film like this, but the production values are great too. Costumes and sets are decent and the visuals are solid. And on a technical filmmaking side, the pacing is perfect and the bonkers narrative is well-told. But at the end of the day, Bill is basically just a pantomime for the big screen. Wacky humour, colourful costumes and a few men in drag. In a film about Shakespeare. What more could you possibly ask for? Historical accuracy? Don’t be daft.
Bill is a difficult film to review. Because it’s more interested in being daft than delivering a good story or, well, any sense. But because of this, it shines. Bill is one of the finest comedy films of recent years. While its zaniness might be lost on some viewers, you can’t fault a comedy that makes you laugh through such irreverence – especially one that also manages to remain family friendly, and give youngsters their first taste of such bizarre humour. The 1970s had Monty Python’s Life of Brian and The Holy Grail. The 1980s had Airplane and The Naked Gun. The 2010s have Bill. I can’t wait to see what the team come up with next.
Bill is an unexpected treat. 4/5.
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