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Cock and Bull Story, A (2005)

Main image of Cock and Bull Story, A (2005)
35mm, colour, 94 mins
DirectorMichael Winterbottom
Production CompanyRevolution Films
ProducerAndrew Eaton
ScreenplayFrank Cottrell Boyce, Martin Hardy
Original novelLaurence Sterne
PhotographyMarcel Zyskind

Cast: Steve Coogan (Steve Coogan/Walter Shandy); Rob Brydon (Rob Brydon/Uncle Toby); Keeley Hawes (Elizabeth Shandy); Shirley Henderson (Susannah/Shirley Henderson); Dylan Moran (Doctor Slop); David Walliams (parson); Jeremy Northam (Mark, the director)

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A film crew tries to adapt Laurence Sterne's famously wayward novel 'Tristram Shandy', a task that would be hard enough even without all the script and budget changes, awkward journalists, warring producers and rivalry between the actors...

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One of the most original novels in the history of English and world literature, Laurence Sterne's wayward eighteenth-century masterpiece 'Tristram Shandy' defies synopsis, and also adaptation. And while eyebrows were raised skywards when comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon took on the project, the end result goes a surprisingly long way towards capturing Sterne's playful spirit.

Director Michael Winterbottom made a similarly picaresque account of the travails of Factory Records' Tony Wilson in 24 Hour Party People (2002) - and one of many sly in-jokes sees Wilson contributing a cameo as himself, interviewing Steve Coogan (also as himself) on the set of Tristram Shandy for the electronic press kit (which, as Coogan's voiceover correctly predicts, will be included on the DVD release). Another is the witty choice of music, with its canny citations of The Draughtsman's Contract (d. Peter Greenaway, 1982) and Federico Fellini's 8 1/2 (Otto e mezzo, Italy, 1963), films that take a similarly postmodern narrative approach - and the extracts from Handel's stately 'Sarabande' deliberately recall Barry Lyndon (d. Stanley Kubrick, 1975), whose recreation of 18th-century England was far more lavish than the low budget of Tristram Shandy can hope to aspire to.

But the longest running gag, concerns the mock rivalry between Coogan and Brydon. Like many actors making the transition from small to big-screen stardom, Coogan (or at least this fictional version) is deeply insecure about his status, and worried about being upstaged by Brydon - in both the physical sense (Coogan asks for his shoes to be built up so that he appears taller) and, more seriously, in terms of onscreen time. During shooting, two key subplots (the Battle of Namur and the romance with the Widow Wadman) are reinstated, both of which give Brydon's Uncle Toby a far more significant role (and an onscreen romance with Hollywood star Gillian Anderson), whereas Tristram Shandy himself, despite being the title character, has yet to be born.

Sterne's novel is in part a philosophical reflection on the challenges of creating coherent art from wayward, unreliable and potentially encyclopaedic source material. Winterbottom attempts the same thing with his treatment, and if the end result is inevitably far less complex than the 800-page original, there's some genuine substance behind the jokes. Coogan's 'real-life' domestic situation is neatly paralleled with the travails of the Shandy family, the underlying melancholy common to both bringing the eighteenth and twenty-first centuries together.

Michael Brooke

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Video Clips
Anderson, Gillian (1968-)
Brydon, Rob (1965-)
Coogan, Steve (1965-)
Fry, Stephen (1957-)
Hart, Ian (1964-)
Henderson, Shirley (1965-)
Macdonald, Kelly (1976-)
Moran, Dylan (1971-)
Northam, Jeremy (1961-)
Winterbottom, Michael (1961-)