The idea of alternate histories is inherently a little playful – even quite brutal scenarios like Fatherland or The Man in the High Castle, can’t help but have an ironical eye on the world as it really is or was. Bill embraces that playful ambience to look at the so-called “missing years” and invent a Spanish attempted coup d’etat of the government of Queen Elizabeth I. A complex series of misadventures gets strung together from this initial springboard, involving an array of famous name-drops and cameos, all of which are stylish, witty, and most importantly, don’t wear out their welcome. It all adds up to a gentle, hugely funny, charming and interesting film crammed with both period and period-inappropriate satire.
It’s not perfect. I watched it at what turned out to be a kids’ Sunday-morning screening (£2.50 at my local Odeon), and more than half the jokes went over their heads, making me think that this film was probably really more for adults who can take their humour without our customary bitter undercurrent than for kids. It also doesn’t really add up to much – I tend to want to leave a satire feeling like a new perspective on the material has been opened up and this had no such achievement, or indeed, ambition to achieve. It was simply content to poke fun at things more-or-less at random and just keep a rollicking momentum.
What I think other comedies should learn from Bill is actually very simple – it has a central storyline, including character arcs, that is used as a skeleton for the jokes. If you stripped out all the humour, there is a genuinely appealing historical “what if” scenario at the heart of the action. Because it has a genuine story at its heart, there’s always somewhere for the jokes and set-pieces to go. The liberal sprinkling of comedic asides, jokes, etc, are supported by the story rather than trying vainly to simply be funny enough that nobody notices it’s pointless. I think this is why something like Club Dread is almost infinitely funnier than something like Scary Movie.