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Non-Review Review: Horrible Histories – The Movie: Rotten Romans

Horrible Histories – The Movie: Rotten Romans is essentially a feature-length pantomime, and works best on those terms.

Horrible Histories is an adaptation of a popular series of children’s (teenager’s) books that aim to explore history through an unconventional lens, providing a somewhat grittier and more tongue-in-cheek accounting of the historical record than those found in school books. They are immensely popular, and have existed long enough to have a cross-generational appeal. It is entirely possible that many parents bringing their children to see Horrible Histories will themselves have read one or two of the source books.

Sharp satire?

Naturally, Horrible Histories is not the first attempt to adapt the books for a broader audience. The BBC adapted the series to television a decade ago, attracting a wide range of comedic talent to bring the show’s unique perspective to life; the series included figures like Alice Lowe, Simon Farnaby, Al Murray, Mark Gattiss, David Badiel and Chris Addison. The series was beloved, even featuring satirical musical numbers. Its influence lived on in specials like the BBC’s centenary rap battle marking the start of the First World War.

Horrible Histories largely eschews a lot of the talent responsible for the television series, although it does make room for a few cameos. However, the film is at its strongest when it embraces the source material’s irreverent playfulness. Ironically, the film suffers when it tries to weave a conventional narrative into this structure.

“Our problems are legion.”

The plot of Horrible Histories is the weakest part of the film, focusing on something of the relationship between a captured Roman legionnaire and a young Celtic warrior. Horrible Histories attempts to build something resembling a conventional story focused on Atti and Orla, two young kids on a journey towards adulthood and self-actualisation, learning to overcome their differences and appreciate each other’s culture.

The plot itself is boilerplate. Atti is a young booksmart Roman who gets in over his head and finds himself exiled to Britain following a cynical prank that unexpectedly backfires. Orla is the daughter of a Celtic tribal lord who dreams of a future in glorious battle, if her father will ever allow her to carry a sword. Their arcs are clearly signposted from the outset, and there are precious few surprises or complications along the way, just a long series of interconnected events that serve to provide a human angle on the larger historical setting being explored.

Whether Nero or Pharoah.

Part of the problem is the script, but it is also the cast. Casting teen actors is challenging, especially when those young actors have to interact with one another. It isn’t that Atti and Orla have to work on their own; they have to work together. Sebastian Croft and Emilia Jones work well enough individually. Croft has a surprising knack for physical comedy, even if  he can’t entirely sell his character’s emotional journey. Jones has a reasonable amount of screen presence, but can’t elevate the role. However, the pair do not work together in the way that they need to.

This is a shame, because there is a lot to recommend Horrible Histories outside of the two lead characters and the central storyline. The most interesting stuff in the film is happening with the historical figures and providing a snapshot of a particular moment in history, all filtered through the lens of self-aware farce. Horrible Histories often feels like a ridiculously over-the-top pantomime, and works best in that register; it is populated by cartoonish caricatures and constant self-mockery, driven as much by its own silly internal jokes as the historical record.

It takes a pillage…

A lot of the humour in Horrible Histories is relatively old hat, juxtaposing the conventions of the modern world with the historical setting. There is a certain cheesily naff quality to it, such as Atti’s parents trying to limit his “scroll-time” and Boudicca’s “followers” measured in the style of social media. There is a sense that the film is aware of how tired these jokes are, but it commits to them anyway with an endearing energy.

Horrible Histories understands the basics of comedy enough that it largely works even with fairly broad and familiar material. The film commits to the idea of escalation, even with some of its most routine jokes; Governor General Gaius Suetonius Paulinus’ increasingly strained and confusing rhetorical addresses to his troops, a bickering couple increasingly horrified by the circumstances in which they find themselves, Orla’s kleptomaniac granny, the idea of the Celtic army as a wandering out-of-control music festival headed by Kate-Nash-as-Boudicca.

Governor General Orders.

As with pantomime, the level of commitment to the material becomes inseparable from the quality of the joke. As with the earlier television series, characters in Horrible Histories routinely break into song and dance – these are affairs that are modest by the standards of standard cinematic musical numbers, but impressive for the budget of the BBC, and careful balance their level of self-awareness between the two extremes. With all the energy that Horrible Histories invests, it’s impossible to tell whether the “Lady Gaga”/“Bad Romans” joke is so bad it’s good or legitimately great.

This enthusiasm sustains Horrible Histories, through sequences that should be indulgent and cheap; because the film is never afraid to try anything and everything, even the obvious punchlines don’t seem lazy. There’s something vaguely charming about how Horrible Histories manages to bring back Derek Jacobi to reprise the role that he played in I, Claudius, but that charm is escalated by the fact that the film has another character prompt Jacobi for a clumsy title drop and then the film has one of the finest British actors of his generation vomit mushrooms on his son’s sandals.

Grapes of Wrath.

It is a testament to the energy of Horrible Histories that its constant jokes about bodily functions and fluids feel charming rather than crass. It is more than just the film being true to its brand, it is a strangely enthusiastic embrace of lowbrow (often literally toilet) humour in the surreal context of what should be a child-friendly educational film and a (literal) reflection of the film’s “throw everything at the wall and see what sticks” approach to entertaining its audience. (It helps that the bodily function jokes are interspaced with cheesy puns and goofy visual gags.)

As such, it is at once both disappointing and appropriate that the weakest aspect of Horrible Histories: The Movie is the part where it tries to be a movie, and that the strongest part is when it celebrates Horrible History. As a narrative feature, Horrible Histories is overly familiar and routine, populated by well-worn tropes and focused on two thinly-drawn characters played by two actors with minimal chemistry. However, as a broad collection of jokes aimed at a youngish audience with a sly and enthusiastic energy underscoring it, Horrible History is infectiously fun.

Then again, Horrible Histories always worked better as a goofy riff on history rather than as engaging narratives in their own right.

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