Horrible Histories: The Movie – Rotten Romans

 

starHalf



The film version of the Horrible Histories franchise proves to be a dispiritingly reductive 

view of the past.

 
Horrible Histories

Amateur hour: Kate Nash (centre) as Boudicca

 

It was inevitable, of course. The Horrible Histories franchise has reached into every possible crevice of commercial possibility (video games, magazines, sticker books, stage shows, mugs), so a film version was a foregone conclusion. And to capitalise on the new appetite for a good old singalong, four full-blown musical numbers have been thrown in for good measure. All that’s really lacking is a measure of quality control.

 

The brainchild behind the phenomenon is Terry Deary, who, twenty-four years ago, decided to dumb down the annals of history in order to make the subject fun and accessible to schoolchildren everywhere. The result was a series of books (illustrated by Martin Brown) that, in eighteen years, produced sixty titles, running the gamut from the Groovy Greeks to the Wicked History of the World, highlighting the more bizarre aspects of times past.

 

Bypassing the first two titles in the series (The Terrible Tudors and The Awful Egyptians), the filmmakers have opted to ridicule the Romans, possibly to channel the spirit of  the Stephen Sondheim musical A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and the TV sitcom Up Pompeii! The silliness remains, with the odd sop to further education (such as the depiction of the habitual defecation and vomiting at dinner time).

 

The Romans have had a hard time of it (think René Goscinny's Asterix comics and Monty Python’s Life of Brian) and are given little respite here, particularly in the form of the childish, petulant Emperor Nero (Craig Roberts) who devises increasingly pernicious ways to punish his messenger. The lion’s share of the film, though, is set in the far-flung colony of Britain (aka ‘The Stain’), where the Roman teenager Atti (Sebastian Croft) is sent as punishment for offering Nero a bottle of horse urine disguised as gladiators’ sweat. Considering Nero’s sadistic bent, this seems a surprisingly lenient penance.

 

In Britain, Atti is captured by a feisty Celt girl, Orla (Emilia Jones), who, like such cinematic predecessors as Disney's Mulan and Princess Merida in Brave, is determined to do her bit for feminism and team up with Boudicca to repel the rotten Romans.

 

The result is a curious mix of the anachronistic and the informative, a case of the film attempting to have its cake and devouring it. As Boudicca, Kate Nash sings of her hashtag and bellows into a make-believe microphone, although Nero’s adoption of a pair of sunglasses would appear to be historically accurate. The problem rests with the ‘amateur night’ tone of the film, in which anything goes and is accompanied by the year’s most fatuous musical score. On the plus side, Emilia Jones makes an engaging heroine (in Emma Watson mode), while comedy stalwarts like Nick Frost and Lee Mack are sacrificed on the altar of absurdity.

 

JAMES CAMERON-WILSON

 

Cast: Emilia Jones, Sebastian Croft, Nick Frost, Craig Roberts, Kate Nash, Rupert Graves, Alex Macqueen, Lee Mack, Warwick Davis, Sanjeev Bhaskar, Alexander Armstrong, Chris Addison, Derek Jacobi, Kim Cattrall, Joanna Bacon, Ben Ashenden, Kevin Bishop.

 

Dir Dominic Brigstocke, Pro Will Clarke and Caroline Norris, Screenplay Jessica Swale, Giles Pilbrow and Caroline Norris, Ph John Sorapure, Pro Des Heather Gibson, Ed Nigel Williams, Music Iain Farrington, Matt Katz and Richard Webb, Costumes Ros Little.

 

Altitude Film Entertainment/BBC Films/Citrus Films-Altitude Film Distribution.

92 mins. UK. 2019. Rel: 26 July 2019. Cert. PG.