Describing Tristram Shandy: A Cock & Bull Story is at once very easy and very difficult. It’s one of the best movies you’ll see this year, and it’s story within, within a story, within a story style also makes Tristram Shandy is one of the most inventive films you’ll ever see. However, describing the narrative structure of its script is difficult because like the book, it doesn’t really have one.
Based on Laurence Sterne’s “The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman”, director Michael Winterbottom attempts to do the impossible: make a film of the book. The 18th century novel is filled with blank pages, all black pages, and a slew of asides. Realizing that it would be nearly impossible to do a direct translation of the book, director Winterbottom devises a mockumentary in the middle of the actual film giving the movie the same random feeling that the book has become known for.
Tristram Shandy soon becomes more about the making of the film than the book it’s based on. This of course leaves the audience agog, wondering what’s going to happen next. The movie follows the cast and crew as they are encamped in an English country estate. Steve Coogan gets fitted with a new nose so he can play not only Tristram but also Tristram’s father, and the difficult task of playing a self-absorbed actor named Steve Coogan. Steve doesn’t just have to deal with the fact that script is in constant flux but also that his role is being overshadowed by Rob Brydon (played perfectly by Rob Brydon) in the role of Tristram’s uncle Toby. On top of that he’s made the costume designers mad over a shoe heel issue and the film is running out of money.
The movie within a movie’s director, played not by Michael Winterbottom but by Jeremy Northam, and its screenwriter have to rethink key bits of the script due to some truly horrible dailies. In order to save the film they hire Gillian Anderson for the role of Widow Wadman, Toby’s love interest. The story is at once both focused and completely random. Once the story veers away from the actual book and becomes a behind-the-scenes film, truly anything can happen and does. It turns out that Coogan has been flirting with a production assistant while his girlfriend visits the set with their new baby. If that wasn’t enough, a tabloid reporter has arrived to interview Coogan in order to cover up a scandalous rumor.
After releasing the art as porn 9 Songs last year, it’s surprising to see Winterbottom bounce back with such a fun and unique film. He manages to hold all his stories in check and keeps the film from falling apart. He is a master craftsman working at the top of his game. Screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce uses the pen-name Martin Hardy. Boyce wrote two of director Winterbottom’s better films Code 46 and 24 Hour Party People. Here Boyce is able to turn the book into a film as well as capture the complete randomness of the novel in a brilliant homage. It’s a shame this movie is coming out so early in the year. It’s the kind of script that might otherwise win people awards.
It’s hard to really find anything not to like about this film. If you sit back, relax, and let the director take you on Tristram Shandy’s wild ride, you’ll really enjoy it. On the other hand, if you get caught up in trying to make sense of everything that’s happening, you’ll only be frustrated and annoyed at the randomness of the pic. This isn’t a movie for everyone, but if you’re up to the challenge you’ll be rewarded.