Horrible Histories: The Movie, review: this big-screen adaptation is neither horrible nor historic
Dir: Dominic Brigstocke. Cast: Emilia Jones, Sebastian Croft, Nick Frost, Rupert Graves, Kim Cattrall, Kate Nash, Alex Macqueen, Derek Jacobi, Craig Roberts. PG cert, 92 min
After a decade on TV, the Horrible Histories series seeks the Python-style Holy Grail of a big-screen spinoff, with intermittently entertaining if also cloddish results. Lifting its plot from the “Rotten Romans” instalment of Terry Deary’s original books, Horrible Histories: The Movie goes all out with the gag quotient – there are meant to be some 450 in the script alone – and only needs to score a modest hit-rate to keep itself ticking over.
It has an appealingly basic quality, essentially panning out as an overgrown afterschool special which might teach kids a few things about the Roman invasion of Britain, amid a volley of poo jokes and star cameos.
First and classiest among these is Derek Jacobi, playing none other than the emperor Claudius, the role that won him a Bafta in 1976. He’s in no such danger here, obligingly hamming up a farcical death scene with Agrippina (Kim Cattrall) poisoning him to pave the way for her dinky son Nero (Craig Roberts) to take his seat. Of course, Nero in turn had his mother killed five years later, a moment the film throws in with nicely off-hand timing, practically as an accident. Imperial history is already so fast and loose, it’s an open goal for irreverent retelling.
Over in Britannia, which Nero thinks is just a grimy stain on his map of empire, the Iceni are amassing under Boudicca (Kate Nash), whom the film pitches as the first-century equivalent of a meteoric Instagram celebrity, romping down to Colchester and St Albans on a sword-swinging festival tour. Her theme song needs work – the film’s atonal musical interludes all do, frankly – but the script is happy to land on this warrior queen as a go-to feminist role model, giving the supercilious invaders a regular kick in the pants.
Young Roman cleverclogs Atti (Game of Thrones’s Sebastian Croft) is our geeky hero, forced to become a legionnaire after peddling horse wee to Nero (don’t ask), who finds an opposite number in Orla (Emilia Jones), a feisty Celtic teen who kidnaps then befriends him. While these sections of the film make little play with history at all, they’re affable enough: the two young leads merrily make fools of themselves while the likes of Rupert Graves and Nick Frost serve up gruff, self-mocking support, respectively as a pompous general and Orla’s extremely hairy dad.
Some of the early stalwarts of the TV show are sorely missed – especially the reliably ridiculous Simon Farnaby – and a couple of the cameos (Chris Addison? Alexander Armstrong?) land too feebly to compensate. Thankfully, Roberts is solid value as an insecure, kohl-eyed Nero throwing hissy fits when he doesn’t like his presents, ably backed by Alex Macqueen’s wincing adviser Sycophantus.
In the spirit of a running shoot-the-messenger routine which overstays its welcome, here goes: the film’s assets feel too thinly stacked for feature lift-off, with far too many jokes either falling flat or just contentedly riffing on their Pythonesque heritage – “I’m Farticus, and so’s my wife” is the general level. Destined to form an idle televisual backdrop while families one day slip into a Yuletide coma, it ain’t horrible, but it ain’t historic, either.