Wednesday, 23 September 2015

Bill; Clearing up the mystery of what killed Christopher Marlowe

Philip II of Spain, because a knife in the guts was cheaper than fifty quid in coin. That’s in fact not significantly less plausible than some of the other theories about how Elizabethan England’s best tragedian wound up dead in a dive in Deptford at the age of 29, though if you were a cui bono? kind of guy, you’d be looking at how Marlowe’s death cleared the path for William Shakespeare, or whatever gang of squirrels in a raincoat you happen to believe wrote all those plays. There are even more crazy theories about how Shakespeare lived than there are about how Marlowe died, and given that he’s a writer who left six attested signatures, no two of them spelled the same way, eight squirrels in a raincoat is at least as likely as anything which Victorian men of letters threw into the speculation mix.

Sadly, while Bill does clear up the whole who-whacked-Chris question, it’s perversely silent on the question of which member of the aristocracy used Shakespeare as a front (the only Englishman with more stories about how he must really have been someone else posh is Jack the Ripper). The only nod to the whole farrago is the way the Earl of Croydon steals his text to impress the Queen, but that’s the exact opposite of all the other theories, and pretty much everyone in the audience is going to be too busy laughing at the fact that he hates being called “Crawley” to care either way. Take that, Julian Fellowes. There’s no such person as the Earl of Crawley ; Horrible Histories done spoken.

Anyhow, back to Philip II of Spain [1], who is the best thing in the whole movie. I’ve a soft spot for smart people with horrible plans and dumb subordinates, and few come smarter or more dumbly supported than Bill’s version of Philip II. He has a simple plan; take a British hostage, use that to force the Queen to parley, and then murder her to bits at the parley using the very finest assassins Spain has to offer. When you meet Spain’s finest assassins, you realise that Phil has some problems. Either his best men have already been nobbled when the Armada forgot to check the weather forecast, or he’s been losing consistently up to now because Spain’s armed forces are just the worst. A defining moment hits when his leading torturer explains in Titus Andronicus detail how horribly and spectacularly everyone is going to die, and Philip, determined manager of the unsalvageable, nods calmly and says as warmly as he can “Let’s call that Plan J.” Everyone’s had a meeting where that sentence would have come in handy. 

Like anything stretched to movie length for a team that’s used to working in smaller chunks, Bill misses as often as it hits, but the cast are charming, and if one joke doesn’t work, there will be another along in a minute which might be better. And it’s unapologetically aimed at smart people; when Marlowe is setting up the hand-off of Shakespeare’s play to the grasping Croydon, he suggests a public place; “There’s this pub I know. In Deptford. Perfectly safe, I promise."

As a commentary on Shakespeare, in all good conscience I’d have to recommend The Reduced Shakespeare Company , which gives you ALL the Shakespeare and a real risk of serious injury from not being able to catch your breath between guffaws. And while Shakespeare in Love might have won a couple of Oscars, it can’t honestly claim to have the same deep grasp of geopolitics as Bill, and I don’t know where else you’re going to get such a nuanced take on the character and ambitions of Philip II of Spain. It’s also the only movie this year which features a performance of any kind by Damian Lewis, playing a spy only marginally less lucky than Nicholas Brody.

[1] Who is never referred to with less than his full title, except when Damian Lewis dismissively calls him Phil, about thirty seconds before Philip II of Spain turns the tables on him completely and consigns him to a dungeon he never gets out of.

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