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Rickard and Ben Willbond put in enough jokes related to the works of Shakespeare and Marlowe, along with plenty of historical references, it is when they decide to let loose with the silliness that the comedy really takes off.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
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
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