A Cock and Bull Story
9

  • Michael Winterbottom
  • 2005

Director Michael Winterbottom is not one to shy away from the unconventional or unexpected, in fact you could say that to expect anything apart from something different when a new Winterbottom project is announced is slightly misguided. And after David Cronenberg’s The Naked Lunch (1991) and Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) among others, Winterbottom has now turned his hand to putting a classic ‘un-filmable’ novel to celluloid, in this case Laurence Sterne’s canonical The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman.

Tristram Shandy was, as the film humourously quips, “postmodern before there was any modern to be post- about” and essentially its premise can be seen to be that life is just incredibly chaotic. The novel aims to chart the life history of its narrator-protagonist Tristram Shandy, and can be seen as a metafiction, having Tristram narrating not just the narrative of the autobiography but also highlighting the process of it — a process which runs far far from planned with tangents not just complicating the chronology but almost completely taking over from the original narrative path, although undeniably ending up offering much more than the planned work would have delivered. The novel is a novel about writing a novel, and this metatextual side serves to detail what seems to be the main themes of chaos and the unpredictability of life (points which the various stories told also serve to demonstrate).

…testament to the how the film is wonderfully comic and clever, and very playful.

The film then is not just a filmed version of the Sterne novel and the stories told within it, although these are present, but it also becomes a film about making a film, and specifically about making the film of this unfilmable novel. Funding pitches, script discussion and costume issues are as important to the film and are given as much screen time as the tales of Tristram’s conception, for example, or the battle re-enactment which caused damage to his Uncle Toby’s ‘manhood’. The film plays the concepts of fiction and reality as very slippery, with shots of drinks after press screenings and character interviews playing easily as real or acted. Over an interview that Tony Wilson gives Steve Coogan within the film a voice-over states that the whole interview will appear as a special feature on the DVD — this is testament to the how the film is wonderfully comic and clever, and very playful.

Both Steve Coogan, who plays Tristram Shandy, Walter Shandy and himself, and Rob Brydon, who plays Uncle Toby and himself, shine in their roles, offering humourous banter throughout (scripted, improvised? probably both), and indeed the film is well acted across the cast with great naturalistic, comic and sometimes dramatic performances from many such as Keeley Hawes, Shirley Henderson, Jeremy Northam, Mark Williams and Gillian Anderson. Coogan and Brydon’s characters offer comment on the personal issues involved in modern celebrity and although redeemed by the film’s close, Coogan’s character’s sometimes pretentious self-interest, seen in his debate over who the main character is or in the way he acts with women, becomes often sunk further by Brydon’s character’s purity and wit — and fittingly the talent and celebrity of the latter seems to be growing and growing.

Winterbottom has produced a fine work in A Cock And Bull Story and the fact that it is probably not as clever as the book from which it comes is irrelevant, it is a great comic piece, and sits nicely with both more modern, or postmodern, articulations of creation like Adaptation (Spike Jonze, 1999), though being distinctly different, and also with the fine body of work which the director and producer Mark Eaton have offered so far.

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