Review: A Cock and Bull Story (Winterbottom, 2005)

See also: Top 10 Films of 2006

d. Michael Winterbottom; w. Frank Cottrell Boyce; st. Steve Coogan, Rob Brydon, Keeley Hawes, Shirley Henderson, Dylan Moran, Jeremy Northam, David Walliams, Gillian Anderson, Kelly MacDonald

Said to be an un-filmable novel (and probably rightly so), approaching the movie adaptation of “The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy” you’d be forgiven for wondering just how the hell director Michael Winterbottom pulled it off. Well, he didn’t, exactly. It isn’t that the film doesn’t look at both the ‘life’ and the ‘opinions’ of Laurence Sterne’s titular character, it’s more that it rolls it all up into a bite-size bundle of non-linear narration, film-within-a-film-within-a-film invention, and wry satirical asides which celebrate the originality, humour and post-modern techniques of the original literature. So how do you adapt a selection of books that cannot be cinematised – you don’t. You use the books as inspiration for a film that is as unique, as weird, and as funny for a 21st century audience as the books were to 18th century readers.

cock and bull story film steve coogan

You’ve got to praise Michael Winterbottom if only for his willingness to take chances. You’ve also got to thank him for giving the British film industry an injection of vitality, always producing edgy films that flirt between mainstream and niche, art house cinema. In many ways, he’s a modern day auteur, one who works within his own constraints, unhindered by Hollywood sensibilities. Sometimes it doesn’t quite work (“9 Songs”), often it does (“24 Hour Party People”, “Road To Guantanomo”), but rarely is Winterbottom’s dark, cynical outlook portrayed without style and intelligence.

For “A Cock and Bull Story” the director takes Tristram Shandy’s personal struggle to find meaning in his life, or ability to articulate his feelings in a linear form, and weaves them round Steve Coogan’s attempts to portray the character on film. This is all going on while Coogan has to deal with his off-screen relationship issues and the birth of his first child. The film seemingly taps into the rampant market of reality television, providing its audience with a behind-the-scenes look at art imitating life imitating art, with the awkward, surreal comedy of Charlie Kaufmann. Indeed, the film isn’t a far cry from Kaufmann’s own “Adapation” – a film he wrote for director Spike Jonze about the writer’s struggles to adapt Susan Orleans’ “The Orchid Thief”.

Coogan’s portrayal of Shandy is intermittently interspersed throughout the movie as he both plays the character and acts as narrator. Fans of the books the film is inspired by shouldn’t see the movie expecting a glorious, Peter Jackson-telling of an age-old story. Indeed, there isn’t much of the page that reaches the screen. This becomes a nicely implemented sub-plot with the characters squabbling about what should and should not be in the movie. But it’s Winterbottom’s use of the literature to mirror that of a modern story, where Coogan’s fictional representation of himself struggles to come to terms with the birth of his baby, and can’t find time for his ‘girlfriend’ (not his wife as he likes to remind people), that is the main attraction. There’s an absurd but brilliant moment when Coogan, playing Shandy, is entombed in a freestanding womb as the other characters mock him. It both works as a representation of Shandy’s obsession with his own birth and insecurities, with Coogan’s feeling of entrapment as an actor, a father, and a public figure.

But the greatest attribute of the film is its two leads. Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon are superb. Friends in real life, the two British actors play off each other with a comic ease that cannot be manufactured. Brydon’s brilliant impression of Coogan’s television character Alan Partridge is one of the film’s funniest moments, showcasing in all its glory the self-reflexive attributes of the movie. In many ways, it’s this self-reflexive, knowingly-cynical satire that makes the film so appealing. The movie opens with Brydon and Coogan playing themselves in the make-up room as Brydon muses over the colour of his teeth. Later, Coogan complains about the size of heal on his shoes, and while wearing a rather bent latex nose, asks his girlfriend if she would have had a baby with him if he looked like this in real life. The glorious self-mocking comedy is a staple of both Brydon and Coogan’s comic brand, totally lacking in pretension, and works so well in much of their improvised scenes within the movie as well as underlying the difficulty in bringing such literature to the big screen. In a sense, their self-mocking behaviour is indicative of the film’s irresistible approach to adapting the books – if you can’t do them justice, make fun of your failed attempts to do so. It’s unique, it’s funny, and it’s rather charming.

a cock and bull story steve coogan rob brydon michael winterbottom

If anything the film can be too clever for its own good. The non-linear narration of Shandy’s story disjoints the linear ‘making-of’ sections which takes something away from the overall effect. Indeed, Winterbottom’s approach might be too left-field for those wanting a serious adaptation of Laurence Sterne’s work. However, it isn’t as if the director doesn’t take the source material seriously, because the film’s inspired humour and style are clearly influenced by Sterne’s wayward thinking. Further, it shouldn’t be forgotten that the component parts of the movie add up to a whole that is as weird and interesting as Tristram Shandy himself, and rather than mocking the literature, mocks the filmmakers attempts to adapt it for the big screen. Evidently, as the film is as digressive as the novel, what can only be described as a loose cinematic version of The Life and Opinions, is in fact, a celebration of the books, the forward-thinking technique, and of Sterne himself.

In many ways, Winterbottom couldn’t have made a better stab at it. He’s not only made a very competent movie that is both funny and endearing, he’s made a story for a new audience. Perhaps that oft-used word ‘adaptation’ should really be ‘adaptability’. “A Cock and Bull Story” is adaptable for an audience pruned on high-concept Hollywood exports. In taking care of that unfortunate problem he’s made sure Sterne’s inventive 18th Century writing isn’t an excluded niche that doesn’t fit the mainstream. That, for me, is the film’s lasting and most important attribute.

Top10Films Rating: 9/10

Dan Stephens
Editor, Top10Films.co.uk

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About the Author
Editor of Top 10 Films, Dan Stephens is usually found pondering his next list. An unhealthy love of 1980s Hollywood sees most of his top 10s involving a time-travelling DeLorean and an adventurous archaeologist going by the name Indiana.

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