If you were a child in Britain any time in the 1990s or the 2000s, the Horrible Histories books were likely a big part of your education. The 2009 TV sketch show adaptation won an array of awards and the rebooted 2015 series was also critically praised. The two TV series have been smashed together for Rotten Romans, which brings the franchise’s irreverent, but factually rigorous, take on history to the big screen via director Dominic Brigstocke.
The comedy troupe behind the 2009 series are largely absent here, but a who’s-who of British comedic talent is here in their place. Nero (Craig Roberts) takes over as Roman emperor, just as Celtic tribal leader Boudicca (Kate Nash) begins to rebel against occupying forces in England. Greenhorn soldier Atti (Sebastian Croft) is dispatched along with his legion to fight back against Boudicca, but he is captured by headstrong young girl Orla (Emilia Jones), determined to prove her warrior potential to her father (Nick Frost).
Anyone familiar with the TV series will already have a handle on the style of comedy in the Horrible Histories movie, which starts with a neat gag in which Rattus Rattus delivers his own, rodent take on the iconic MGM lion logo. That more or less sets the tone for what’s to come, which proves to be a quickfire cavalcade of slapstick, puns and musical numbers courtesy of Caroline Norris and Giles Pilbrow’s smart, snappy script. If you like jokes about Roman numerals – and I do – you’re in for a treat.
Craig Roberts, who broke out as the star of Richard Ayoade’s brilliant Submarine, is terrific as the immature, conceited imbecile in charge of Rome. He’s very much the Joffrey to his mum’s Cersei, with Kim Cattrall bringing enjoyable gravitas to that maternal role. Kate Nash is also a standout as Boudicca, embracing her musical skills for several of the most entertaining sequences – including the hip hop inflected ‘Battle of Watling Street’ – as well as bringing to the fore the comedy flair she has showed in Netflix series GLOW.
The film flounders somewhat when it tries to shift its focus from larky, sketch-like comedy segments to a more coherent plot. Young performers Sebastian Croft and Emilia Jones do solid work with their roles, but they’re not really fleshed out beyond the simple character thumbnails of geeky, gawky bloke and unappreciated, determined young woman. When their relationship, which develops from antagonistic to something more like a friendship, takes centre stage in the movie, it doesn’t seem sure what to do with it.
But it seems silly to complain too much about plot when the movie is as much fun as Horrible Histories and as packed with comedy talent. The tone is certainly geared younger than most family movies today, but there are plenty of gags for the grown-ups – Derek Jacobi returns to the role of Claudius – that will keep all audiences happy. As with any movie of this kind, it’s a difficult balancing act to judge, but Horrible Histories pulls it off.
Dir: Dominic Brigstocke
Scr: Caroline Norris, Giles Pilbrow
Cast: Sebastian Croft, Emilia Jones, Kate Nash, Craig Roberts, Nick Frost, Kim Cattrall, Rupert Graves, Derek Jacobi, Alex Macqueen, Lee Mack
Prd: Will Clarke, Caroline Norris
DOP: John Sorapure
Music: Iain Farrington, Matt Katz, Richard Webb
Run time: 92 mins
Horrible Histories: The Movie – Rotten Romans is in UK cinemas from 26th July.