A Cock & Bull Story

The handling of the classics on film/TV can be a very varied thing. Compare the class and quality of the recent adaptation of DickensBleak House to (‘acclaimed director’ no less) Roman Polanski‘s gorblimeyguv saccharine sweet, sanitised and stripped the bone take on the same author’s Oliver Twist, both last year.

But what of A Cock & Bull Story? Michael Winterbottom‘s adaptation of Laurence Sterne‘s supposedly unfilmable The Life And Opinions Of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. I say ‘supposedly’ unfilmable because, to be honest, it never really struck me that way. (I read this book somewhere in my adolescence, and remember finding it pretty hilarious. Never felt compelled to read it again, though.) And, whenever something has been tagged that way, someone always comes along that can do the job quite the thing. Catch 22 jettisoned many of the plots and characters of the novel, but clung desperately to the disjointed and repetitive timeline of the narrative. In American Psycho, Mary Harron was praised for having “transformed” the novel from an evil misogynist bloodfest to a near-feminist satire on men’s vanity and the consumer culture. Well, I’m sorry, but everything up there on the screen is in the book, no twist, no spin, just less walking about naked with decapitated bodies on your appendages.

In this case, we know it is so, because they keep telling us this throughout the film. Ah yes, “telling us”. Winterbottom’s previous film with Steve Coogan (star of this) was 24 Hour Party People. Throughout the film, Coogan, as Tony Wilson, addressed the camera to explain what was and would be happening (including a few red herrings) throughout. It was even peppered with are-you-cool-enough-to-spot-them cameos from the movers and shakers of the Factory scene. But, then he started to have the cameos address the camera and contest the version of events being portrayed. It all got a bit messy.

Which, not very surprisingly, is what happens here when it all degenerates into a film about the making of the film your there to see. Again, the hammer home the fact that the novel was “post-modern before there was any modern to be post about”. In fact, they like to hammer a lot of stuff home, even to the extent of wheeling out the non-thinking person’s thinking person Stephen Fry as an academic to explain to us that the modern bits are exploring the very themes of the novel itself.

Most of the action centres around the insecurities of Coogan, and his rivalry with Rob Brydon. Coogan portrays himself as vain, cuckolding, and completely self-servingly devious. Brydon as a good natured bit-of-a-laugh with a need to be liked by all. Oh, very clever, playing with their media ‘images’, nice… Let me just say, that not only have I seen The Tall Guy*, but I have also met Rowan Atkinson.

Unfortunately for them they choose to pepper the thing with decent actors instead of just Mark Williams et al. Look to any scene with Ian Hart (or even Jeremy Northam) and see how they just hold the viewer’s focus (seemingly) effortlessly.

I’d love to think that there was some great kerfuffle round funding and the film was finished on the cheap by tacking the whole film-within-a-film conceit on the top to salvage something. Unfortunately, it all seems to find itself just that little bit too arch and knowing to be the case. Superb though it is as a documentary, ‘(un)making of’ movie Lost La Mancha leaves you really dying to see the (still unmade) film The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. It’s pretty much the same here, for all it’s addressing the camera and anachronistic Groucho references, I want to see the ‘real’ Tristram Shandy movie.

This’ll probably be the funniest thing you’ll see all year, if your a fan of Coogan & Brydon (or some deranged media type). Or, if you thought that the BBC‘s Shakespeare Re-Told was the bold televisual event of last year.

*Hmmm. Second mention of that film this month. Must see it again, see if it was as good as I remember.

Advertisements

Written by Tony Kiernan

26 January 2006 at 3:57 pm

Posted in Film

%d bloggers like this: