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