VOD film review: Horrible Histories: The Movie – Rotten Romans
Ivan Radford | On 13, Apr 2020
Director: Dominic Brigstocke
Cast: Nick Frost, Sebastian Croft, Emilia Jones, Craig Roberts
Watch Horrible Histories: The Movie – Rotten Tomatoes online in the UK: Amazon Prime / iTunes / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / TalkTalk TV / Rakuten TV / Google Play / Sky Store / CHILI
Awful Egyptians. Smashing Saxons. Vicious Vikings. Vile Victorians. If any of these phrases are your go-to description for those periods of history, then you’re one of the thousands of kids who have grow up with Horrible Histories. First published as books in the early 90s, the child-friendly history franchise has gone on to spawn theatre shows, TV series, a never-quite-made-it theme park and – now – a movie about the Rotten Romans.
The series has stayed true throughout its many incarnations and across multiple media to one noble, simple aim: to make history fun. Educating and entertaining in equal measure is never an easy task, and it’s credit to the franchise that it’s managed to do so consistently for almost 30 years – particularly as the long-running TV show, which introduced us to modern Britain’s answer to Monty Python, a sextet that includes Simon Farnaby, Mathew Baynton, Martha Howe-Douglas and Jim Howick. They went on to make not only the underrated Yonderland, but also, in 2015, the comedic Shakespeare biopic Bill.
Horrible Histories: The Movie does not involve these performers and lacks some of Bill’s inspired nonsense, but it does feature others from the small screen franchise – and, crucially, retains that same ability to effortlessly weave facts and funny jokes together. They begin from the off, as none other than Derek Jacobi gamely reprises his role of Emperor Claudius, just in time for him to kick the bucket and give the Roman Empire over to Emperor Nero (Craig Roberts). Over in Britain, though, the Celts are uniting under the banner of Boudicca (Kate Nash) – and so in stomp the Roman troops to quash the uprising and maintain power.
In the middle of all this, young Roman Atti (Croft) and Celtic teen Orla (Jones) cross paths, sparking a star-crossed connection that goes against the conflict-strewn history around them. If that sounds serious, rest assured: the script stuffs each scene with all manner of silliness, and the cast relish the chance to play to the young audience. Rupert Graves is wonderfully fun as the arrogant General Paulinus, while Lee Mack steals scenes as Decimus, a warrior who tearfully yearns to be back in Italy. Craig Roberts is a delight as he clearly enjoys letting loose as the childish Nero, permanently battling against his scheming mum (Kim Cattrall). And while Nick Frost is her dad, Emilia Jones makes her own mark as Orla, a young woman paving the way for feminists centuries later, while Croft is a likeable lead with the smarts to help Rome’s warriors succeed.
There’s no getting away from the fact that this is a gory confrontation that sees Celts get maimed, slaughtered and butchered – all words that the characters on screen use. Director Dominic Brigstocke does a nice job of embracing the gross-out quality of the books (one Roman dinner party sees people encouraged to vomit up their food to be able to eat more) without descending into adult fare, ensuring that any tension is offset by musical numbers – primarily led by a committed Kate Nash as the popstar-esque Boudicca.
The result feels like a sketch show writ large, but in a way that suits a broad audience with a range of attention spans, and the film never outstays its welcome – lingering just long enough to remind viewers of all ages that brains are more important that braun, friendship trumps fear and working together is more valuable than pushing each other apart. Now that’s a lesson worth learning.
Horrible Histories: The Movie is available to watch online on Amazon Prime Video as part of a Prime membership or a £5.99 monthly subscription.