BILL, fam­ily ad­ven­ture/com­edy, not rated, Cen­ter for Con­tem­po­rary Arts, 2 chiles

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In Strat­ford-upon-Avon, Bill Shake­speare (Mathew Bayn­ton) is a sad sack who can’t even keep his gig as lead lute in the Tu­dor-grunge band Mor­tal Coil. His wife Anne (Martha Howe-Dou­glas) wants him to get a real job and start sup­port­ing the fam­ily. But Bill can’t give up his dream of a life in the arts.

With “I’ll show you” de­ter­mi­na­tion and not much else, he heads to Lon­don to fol­low his bliss. There he meets Christo­pher Mar­lowe (Jim How­ick), learns the ropes of writ­ing plays, and takes up the quill.

Bill, how­ever, is not even the main at­trac­tion in this movie. Sub­plots abound. In an open­ing se­quence, Bri­tish su­per-spy Sir Fran­cis Wals­ing­ham (Lau­rence Rickard) is cap­tured by King Phillip of Spain (Ben Will­bond), who then con­ceives a das­tardly plan to as­sas­si­nate Queen El­iz­a­beth (a bald, rot­ten-toothed, lisp­ing He­len McCrory), with a gun­pow­der plot tied into the sub­terfuge of hav­ing her at­tend a play. The play is com­mis­sioned from the fop­pish Earl of Croy­den (Si­mon Farn­aby), who has boasted of his writ­ing skills, of which he has none, or fewer. This all cir­cles back even­tu­ally to Bill, who has dis­cov­ered a knack for the the­atri­cal arts, and has penned his first play, A Se­ries of Funny Mis­un­der­stand­ings.

Th­ese an­tics are the work of the play­ers be­hind the Bri­tish me­dia fran­chise, Hor­ri­ble His­to­ries, which in­cludes books and TV shows, and the film sets out to be a cross be­tween Monty Python and Black­ad­der, but of­ten falls, at least to sen­si­bil­i­ties on this side of the pond, closer to the ter­ri­tory of Pee-wee’s Play­house. Do not ex­pect the sub­lime wit of Tom Stop­pard’s Shake­speare in Love (1998), though you’ll find ref­er­ences strain­ing in that di­rec­tion. Bill as­pires to noth­ing be­yond silli­ness, and that is not a bad place to which to as­pire. The trick is gags that work, and here the movie labors cease­lessly with very small re­turn. There are some mildly hi­lar­i­ous mo­ments, but they are sand­wiched in be­tween re­lent­less lay­ers of duds.

To be fair, this is a movie that de­pends a lot on the age and in­cli­na­tions of its au­di­ence. Eight-year-olds and col­lege fra­ter­nity keg par­ties will love it. You could call it sopho­moric, or per­haps sec­ond-se­mes­ter fresh­manic. It’s clearly a la­bor of love, and the troupe must have cracked it­self up writ­ing and play­ing it, but in the end, it’s love’s labours lost.

— Jonathan Richards

Ter­ri­ble Tu­dors: Mathew Bayn­ton and Jim How­ick

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