Bill Review - You Will Chuckle (A Lot) At This Silly Shakespeare Comedy

The Horrible Histories gang head to the big screen.

Rating: ˜…˜…˜… Bill is funny. There's no better way to put it than that. I was chuckling from the simple-but-sharp opening crawl through to the Shakespeare medley finale, with a good few belly laughs along the way. If all you want is a comedy stuffed with jokes, rather than a forced heartfelt story with the odd humorous set-piece (which we've grown accustomed to from the genre in recent years), then you're in for a good time. The film comes from the same team behind CBBC's Horrible Histories, which became notable for appealing as much to parents as it did kids looking for a teatime treat. And those who've caught that show will know exactly what they're in for here - a historical setting populated by a bunch of off-kilter characters, personified by period trappings suddenly making way for very modern tongues. The big difference with Bill (aside from the larger screen) is that instead of delivering a fun-but-ultimately-educational experience, the focus is much more directly on pure comedy. The backdrop of Elizabethan London, complete with corpse collectors and muggings, feels authentic, but the actual story of what happened during William Shakespeare's "Lost Years" between leaving Stratford and becoming the finest wordsmith the world has ever known is entirely fictitious - after getting kicked out of the band Mortal Coil, Bill moves to London where he works as a veg salesman before getting caught up in a plot to assassinate the Queen.
It's utterly bonkers, but, aside from a handful of roundabout twists and turns that feel artificial, the film gets away with it on the back of sheer relentlessness. There's something impressive about the script almost in a Lego way. It's not got the depth or narrative complexity of that unexpected gem (in the middle act the plot splutters into life sporadically), but Bill is much smarter than its prevalence for childish jokes suggests, with callbacks and unexpected pay-offs galore that defy the perceived kiddie focus. Oh, there are adult jokes in here - one apiece for prostitution, suicide and pornography - but it's not Shrek-level layering; what's pervasive throughout regardless of subject is the silliness. One of the biggest sources of extra comedy is having the majority of the film's roles, from the leads down to one-line cameos, played by the same six actors. Fans of Horrible Histories (and the gang's newer show, Yonderland), will be used to this, but in a feature film there's something anarchic (or at least rule-bending) about it, particularly when multiple characters played by the same person pop up in a scene. The sextet are so dominant, in fact, that the only other actors who get a proper look-in are off-screen couple Damien Lewis and Helen McCrory as Richard Hawkins and Queen Elizabeth respectively, whose presence alone is a top-tier joke.
The overbearing off-kilter humour and ensemble cast playing multiple roles feels very Python-esque, and while it's testament to the actors' comedic skills that I can make that comparison without feeling totally ridiculous, it also highlights Bill's weakness. Put simply, the jump from small- to big- screen just doesn't have quite the same wow-factor of Life Of Brian or The Holy Grail; for all its period set design, there's nothing here we wouldn't have got if this was a feature-length TV special aired on Sunday, 8pm on BBC One. That won't matter too much given that the real home of Bill will be caught unexpectedly on the iPlayer or rewatched by Horrible Histories-loving kids, but it's hardly what you want in a theatrical release. At the end of the day though, Bill is still funny; there's subtly outrageous physical comedy and language tricks that play to both kids and adults in equal measure. And when the modern idea of a humorous family movie is Minions, there's something quite refreshing about that.
Bill is in UK cinemas on Friday 18th September.
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Film Editor (2014-2016). Loves The Usual Suspects. Hates Transformers 2. Everything else lies somewhere in the middle. Once met the Chuckle Brothers.