I can’t recall the first time that someone referred to the Horrible Histories TV series as “Monty Python for kids” and having now seen a small number of episodes and this; the first feature-length release. You understand why that comparison (however reductive it might seem) is a useful shorthand for describing something which is incredibly British in its execution and utterly charming. A better description might be ‘Monty-Python on the set of Up Pompeii written by Ben Elton in the 80s but without the swearing’ and you’d be getting a bit closed to what the tone of Horrible Histories is.
The story centres on two teenage protagonists Atti (Sebastian Croft) and Orla (Emilia Jones) who are on the opposing sides in the Roman Empire’s attempts to conquer Britannia. Desperate to prove to her Chieftain father, Arghus (Nick Frost) that she is worthy of being a warrior and should fight alongside the men of the tribe, Orla captures and takes prisoner the bumbling but intelligent Atti – who has been sent to the island of Britain to serve as a soldier. Whilst it is this teen drama that drives the central narrative; the film manages to rise above being simply a collection of sketches and into something with a genuine arc that means by the climactic battle you feel invested in their relationship.
As great as Croft and Jones are in the central roles; it is the supporting cast who are as entertaining and engaging as our leads. Emperor Nero is portrayed by Craig Roberts as a petulant and angsty teen with an overbearing mother (Kim Cattrall) who comes closest to being the film’s only genuinely unlikeable character. This, given the actions of the real-life Nero says a lot about the tone which the approach which the film takes to its characters.
The comic duo of the incompetent General Paulinus and home-sick Soldier Decimus (Rupert Graves and Lee Mack) provide solid and continuous laughs throughout the film. The combination of slapstick, exaggeration and toilet humour – see the scene where a Roman erm… ‘relieves’ himself for an uncomfortably awkward length of time into a pot in the company of Nero and his assorted advisors – ensures that this film stays firmly in the territory for its target audience.
Special kudos though, must go to the casting director who chose Kate Bush as the Celtic Warrior Queen Boudicca which allows for a subtle but significant slice of 2019 gender politics with lyrics like “you better watch out Nero your hashtag is times up!”. Never once detracting from the gentle and thoroughly entertaining cinematic experience.
In a world where content is increasingly defined as being for only a very narrow audience, The Rotten Romans is a family film in the best sense of the term. Rather than nudging and winking at the older audience, it looks to entertain all as equals.
Dir: Dominic Brigstocke
Scr: Caroline Norris, Giles Pilbrow, Kevin Cecil, Andy Riley, Dave Cohen, Jessica Swale
Cast: Nick Frost, Kim Cattrall, Derek Jacobi, Sebastian Croft, Emilia Jones, Lee Mack
Prd: Will Clarke, Caroline Norris
DoP: John Sorapure
Music: Iain Farrington, Matt Katz, Richie Webb
Run time: 92 minutes
Horrible Histories The Movie: The Rotten Romans is out now on Blu-Ray, DVD and Digital Download.