Before He Was William Shakespeare, He Was Just..

Richard Bracewell

Mathew Baynton
Ben Willbond
Martha Howe-Douglas
Simon Farnaby
Jim Howick
Laurence Rickard

Historically speaking, there is a fifteen year period in William Shakespeare’s life which has next to no surviving evidence. As such, this period has been dubbed Shakespeare’s Lost Years. Subsequently there has been all manner of speculative fiction attributing various claims about how one of England’s most well-known citizens came to prominence in London. Bill takes it upon itself to offer yet another hypothesis, albeit leaning heavily on the silly side. The film opens with the King Of Spain [Willbond] capturing Sir Richard Hawkins [Damian Lewis] and offering to return him unharmed to England. This is all a ruse, however, as the King intends to bring an group of Spanish mercenaries with him to execute Elizabeth I [Helen McCrory]. While this is going on, we are introduced to William Shakespeare, a musician who hasn’t been enjoying much success in his home of Stratford-Upon-Avon, leaving his wife and children, he heads to London to make his fortune as a writer. Due to a series of events, Bill ends up being contracted by the Earl Of Croydon [Farnaby] to write an amazing play to dazzle the Queen and her guest, King Philip II of Spain.

It should be noted that despite my final score, I did actually enjoy this film. I really like the creative team and there’s as many laughs as there are duds but as a film, it’s not brilliantly crafted and felt like a rewrite away from being something really special. The lead six actors (listed above) are best known for working on Horrible Histories and Yonderland; both of which are exceptionally well made, funny and intelligent. As such I had rather high hopes for this release. As with the aforementioned projects, the production design is of an extremely high calibre: the costumes, hair, make-up, sets and locations are all exemplary. The music is fitting but ultimately a touch too characterless to really stand out. In all honesty, from a technical standpoint, it’s a very functional film, the editing and cinematography are commendable, the editing is decent and the sound design works well. Ultimately, the problems really stem from the writing.

The first thing you notice is the surprising lack of references to Shakespeare’s works. Unlike Shakespeare In Love which was littered with nods, winks and mugging to the camera to highlight the literary inspirations, Bill seems to make more references to Star Wars than the bard’s works. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing as it would really only appeal to those who know the plays inside out and what’s more I would probably harp on about the obviousness of the allusions; Anonymous comes to mind. But waiting for more Macbeth, Hamlet and Midsummer Night’s Dreams quotes or developments, it dawned on me that Bill’s biggest failing is that it is essentially one long drawn out joke: William Shakespeare wasn’t always the genius history remembers him as. Everyone does their best to forward this joke but the punchline is completely lost because the denouement closes the film with “wait, yeah he was.”

The whole thing was very reminiscent of Blackadder Back And Forth. For those who don’t know, Blackadder was an amazingly witty and funny historical British TV series which ran for four seasons. Having been off the air for quite some time, they shot a half-an-hour special to celebrate the millennium. All the cast and crew were reunited but the finished product lacked a certain something. The production levels were all acceptable but the writing fell flat and the overall experience was marred by previous successes. Thankfully Bill doesn’t wade hip deep in the usual fare that family films traipse happily into – fart jokes, I’m looking at you – but it lacks any bite or enough substance to really stand out as something of true merit. I can only hope this is just their first foray into film and that in future something of greater substance can be produced.

Release Date:
18th September 2015

The Scene To Look Out For:
One of Rickard’s many roles is that of Sir Francis Walsingham, who is played as a paranoid zealot, convinced that Catholics are continually plotting to subvert and overthrow the good, Protestant English way of life. Amusingly they are but his absurd hatred of them is quite entertaining, filled with contradictory statements and suspicion of everyone. Not to mention the fact that Walsingham was dead at this point, so every time he turns up in a pie or under a pile of bodies, he’s greeted with looks of surprise. Kind of like Chief Quimby in Inspector Gadget. It’s just a nice little running joke and Walsingham’s manic obsession is nicely played out by Rickard.

Notable Characters:
In the vein of Monty Python, the troupe play (almost) all the lead and supporting roles in various guises so there is a wealth of performances to choose from. For me, however, the two standout characters are Howick as Christopher Marlowe and Willbond as King Philip II Of Spain. Marlowe’s penning of Faust has pretty much defined how he is portrayed throughout time and this case is no different, he makes a deal with the devil and gets burned; surprise surprise. But I found Howick’s performance endearing, especially his inability to grasp comedy, constantly trying to get a handle on “your mum” as a joke. Willbond’s Philip is equally hilarious, opting to portray the king of Spain as a cruel and cunning monarch but also a completely ineffective moustache-twirling villain with useless henchmen. Charming, funny and enjoyably wicked.

Highlighted Quote:
“Walsingham, I thought you were dead!”

In A Few Words:
“Entertaining but altogether disappointing as the misses outweigh the hits in this cinematic debut”

Total Score: